Page From a Tennessee Journal revolves around four people, but its heart is the women- Annalaura Welles & Eula Mae McNaughton. Eula Mae has been married to Alex McNaughton for over twenty years. They have no children, a hole that she feels keenly. She loves her husband, but there is no physical affection between them. He hardly pays her any attention and she takes pride in anticipating all his needs and wants, so that he never has to ask her for anything and knows exactly what is on the schedule every day. But Eula Mae sometimes wishes that she could be more intimate with her husband; she just doesn't know how to apprise him of that fact without him thinking her too forward or, worse, a hussy.
Annalaura is a sharecropper on Alexander McNaughton's farm. Her husband, John, left some months ago without a word and now she is desperately trying to feed and clothe her four children on her own, with no money. She doesn't think her husband will ever return, and she is terrified that McNaughton will turn her out of her home if she doesn't bring in a good tobacco harvest. Sure enough, Alex McNaughton comes to check on her plot's progress, only to find it not performing up to par. He finds Annalaura attractive, though. Very much so. And so he brings her food to feed her children in exchange for spending the night with her. And then he keeps bringing gifts. And keeps spending the night.
Meanwhile, John Welles is in Nashville making as much money as he possibly can so that he can get his family its own farm. This is taking longer than he expects, though, and he is gone for well over a year. When he returns and sees the state of his family, everything begins to unravel. John and Alex must come to terms with their own feelings about their wives and their families, and Annalaura and Eula Mae must decide how to respond to a world that may very well turn on them.
About halfway through this book, I paused, stunned. I cannot remember one book in which I found the main female characters so much more compelling and achingly real than the male ones. And yet in this book, I felt so much more for the women than the men. Thank you for that, Francine Thomas Howard!
I am very impressed by Howard's first effort at a book, and I look forward to more from her. Page From a Tennessee Journal is a very long title to type out but the book itself is a comfortable length. I often don't enjoy books in which the gender roles are so clearly defined and everyone sticks so completely to them that it makes it seem like there was never a passionate argument or loud fight in all of history before the feminist movements came around. There were times in this story when I wanted to shake all the women who sat passively around while their husbands or the men around them treated them like they were second-class citizens. I suppose that is a realistic portrayal of women, but it is hard for me to believe that women prior to around 1960 never allowed their husbands to see their anger.
That said, I found both Annalaura and Eula Mae very easy to sympathize with. They were both victims of situations beyond their control, but they never pitied themselves. Each was so strong and dignified and so heartbreakingly realistic about things. I think that's one thing that women today have the luxury of ignoring once in a while, when we are emotional. We are allowed to be passionate, in anger or happiness or love or hate, because we have so many more options and freedoms available to us now that women in the past just never had access to. And so women in the past were far more pragmatic about their lives and their levels of happiness than I think women today are. As her sister-in-law says to Eula Mae, "Don't you know it ain't got nothin' to do with how well you cook, or how many preserves you put up for the winter, or how clean your kitchen, or how many times you write in that damn journal of yours?...It ain't nothin' you done or didn't do, Eula."
In contrast to the women in this story, the men were very hard to sympathize with. I liked both of them, kind of. But I was mostly very ambivalent towards them both. John is charming and seems to believe he is doing what's best for his family (even if what's best for them is starvation for a year while he's off in Nashville). I felt more sympathy for him because you could see the potential in him to be very successful, except that he is held back by his ethnicity. His anger is palpable. During one section, he thinks:
Becky and Annalaura would have him believe there was justice in running away. Justice and honor in swallowing his words and tipping his cap to every white skin, if that's what it took to keep his children safe. Didn't those women know there were worse things than not being safe? The bile grabbed him, and he retched to get it out. All of it had to be gone to cleanse his own soul before he died of the pain.
Really, I only began to feel sympathy for the male characters towards the end of the book. Up until then, they both acted so selfishly (and even to the end, Alex seemed pretty delusional) that it was impossible for me to feel any empathy towards them. They never once wondered about how their actions would affect other people, least of all their wives, or what might happen in the future and how it might be dealt with. Alex, especially, was so unaware of the fact that Eula Mae might have feelings while being so concerned about everything having to do with Annalaura that I wanted to hit him. Multiple times. I wanted to hit John, too, but not as hard. The way that the men justify their behavior is painful to my feminist sensibilities.
I liked that Howard wrote this story within the constraints of societal norms without making her characters stereotypical. There wasn't the caricature white villain, or the victimized black woman. Everyone was fleshed out and believable.
I enjoyed this book, and I'm glad that Amazon is publishing it. I can't help but think that the success of The Help, written by a white woman, garnered so much attention that now all sorts of books that focus on the relationship between blacks and whites in American history are being published. I'm glad that it's not just the white authors who are getting attention, and if The Help is making it possible for books like Page From a Tennessee Journal and Wench to get the attention they deserve, then so be it.
If I were officially participating in the People of Color reading challenge, this book would count towards that!
This review is based on an advance reader's copy.