I’d say that 1965 was a very good year for the Pulitzer prize in literature. It was awarded to Shirley Ann Grau for The Keepers of the House, a morally complex novel about racism, family, and gender set in the deep south.
Abigail Howland is the seventh generation heir to the Howland family estate in rural Alabama. Her great-great-great-great grandfather established the farm in 1815, and by the time Abigail inherits from her grandfather, William, the Howlands are deeply respected members of the state and county, not in the least because they own most of it.
William’s story is fascinating — his wife dies and he lives alone until he meets a young black woman, Margaret, who becomes his housekeeper and also bears him five children. Everybody in the town/county seem to know about his children, but as has been done for generations, they turn a blind eye to his “woods colts.” The children, who are so light-skinned they can pass for white, are sent off to boarding schools at puberty, never to return. The eldest, Robert, is the same age as William’s white granddaughter, Abigail.
About two-thirds of the book establishes the history of the Howlands’ settlement and expansion of land and wealth. It also paints a portrait of William — the kind of man he is and how he meets Margaret. But perhaps just as importantly, Grau grounds the narrative deeply in region and establishes the importance of land and the family house. She clearly knows this area — the descriptions of the natural world and how William interacts with it are deeply atmospheric. And as the title suggests, we learn how important the house is to the family — think of Manderley or Tara.
The last third of novel is Abigail’s. She marries a politically ambitious man from an equally old Alabama family and has four children of her own that they raise at the Howland place. But the real story of the novel is how her life is impacted by William and Margaret’s relationship and their children. It’s a doozy, which I won’t give away.
I spent a lot of time rereading sections of the last third of the novel, mostly to understand Abigail and her actions a bit better. I struggled with her tolerance of her husband’s overt racism. At the same time, I found myself empathizing with her as a woman (“All my life I had been trained to depend on men, and now when I needed them they were gone”), and rooting for her to defend her legacy against the wider community’s hypocrisy, racism, and violence.
The novel’s painful questions spin on Abigail’s relationship with William and Margaret’s children, her half-aunts and uncle. Why can and does she inherit and not they? How much are we responsible for our ancestor’s actions? What does blood and home mean — individually and societally?
It seems significant that this novel came out at the height of the civil rights movement, the same year that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. But I haven’t (yet) been able to find much about its reception at the time. In fact, I’d never heard mention of it before I picked up my copy on a whim at a used book sale at a library (but that is exactly why I love those sales!). It’s a great one — highly recommend if you are interested in such topics and particularly if you like southern writers.