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The Cutting Season, by Attica Locke

December 8, 2013

The Cutting Season, by Attica Locke.  Harper Perennial (2013), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 384 pages.


A suspense-filled mystery, a tender account of mother-daughter relations, and a “meditation” on how we deal with our personal and societal past—by an African American woman from the South.

Attica Locke is an exceptional writer rooted in her own  history.  She displayed this in her excellent first mystery, Black Water Rising, set in Houston.  For her new book, she  turns to the sugar-growing country just south of Baton Rouge and to a restored plantation steeped in gracious living and almost-forgotten crime.

Caren is an African American single mother, managing the plantation where her family once worked as slaves and where she grew up as the daughter of plantation owner’s cook.  She and her nine-year-old daughter live on the plantation, and when a dead body is found there, she begins to fear for their safety.  As investigation of the murder proceeds, Caren is confronted with people from her own past as well as echoes from her ancestors’ lives.  When her daughter’s father arrives to help, she must choose what is best for her cherished child.  Knowing that the murderer is close and staking her, she must battle the plantation’s current owner who was once a childhood friend.

What Locke has accomplished is to write a well-constructed mystery that also deals with real personal issues with unresolved issues grounded in her character’s past actions, a past that all Americans share.  The drama of Caren’s relation with her daughter has all the painful ambiguity many of us have felt trying to raise a child.  She needs to protect the girl, but to do so will mean releasing and possibly losing their closeness, the only closeness Caren has in her adult life.

Possibilities for romance appear; reunion with the girl’s father or a new relation with a white reporter from New Orleans.  Locke, however, never lets these possible romances become central to her book. She is too good a writer to provide a male protector as a glib conclusion for her multi-faceted book.

Race is another issue that is present but never becomes central.  Certainly race has structured the lives Caren and the other characters have lived.  Yet people move back and forth across color lines, and problems are never defined as primarily racial.  Caren has found a measure of success and a job with authority, but that is not the case for other blacks or for the illegal immigrants who work the cane fields in “cutting season.”  Power and injustice may be enhanced by race, but the responsibility for what has happened in the past and is happening in the present is primarily personal.

Locke is at her best in creating the setting for her novel, a restored plantation in the midst of fields of sugar cane, worked by illegal Mexican immigrants.  The plantation is a beautiful place, maintained in part by lavish weddings, dinners, and other social events that allow visitors to imagine themselves as part of aristocratic tradition of the American south.  Yet for a time it is also a refuge for Caren, a cherished place where she grew up feeling that she belonged.  A young black man, employed on the plantation, begins to unwrap some of the myths the plantation embodies.  He, and the movie he creates about the actual history of the plantation, are seen as threatening and thus become entangled in the murder investigation.  Caren begins to see the irony of her employment working to preserve the plantation mythology.

On her own webpage, Locke relates the swirling mix of feelings that led her to write The Cutting Season.  Attending a wedding at a plantation like the one in her book, she experienced “a whole cocktail of conflicting emotions: rage and revulsion over what the antebellum scene represented, but also a deep and unexpected feeling of love and filial longing, at an almost cellular level, as if I were coming face-to-face with a distant relative for the first time.”   Returning after Obama was elected president, she began to formulate what she wanted to write and why.

Obama’s presidency has necessarily interrupted a narrative about this country that had been virtually unchanged since its birth, a script about race in America that had been playing on a continuous loop for hundreds of years. And it has presented a unique emotional challenge: to hold, in both hands, the fundamental contradiction of where we’ve been in this country against the hope of where we’re going. It made returning to the plantation all the more surreal, raising deep questions about how we treat our history in the context of tremendous progress.

This is a wonderful book because it does explore, in living human terms, our contradictions around race.   I strongly recommend it for sheer reading pleasure and for the questions it raises about how we live with the past we all share.

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