This novel came to my attention when it won the 2016 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
The book begins with Eddie Hardison, a 17-year-old black with no hands, driving a stolen vehicle from Louisiana to Minnesota. Only towards the end do we learn how his hands came to be amputated. The story flashes back to six years earlier where we meet Darlene, Eddie’s mother, who is a drug addict lured into working on a produce farm for a company called Delicious Foods. She and the other workers are basically slave labourers kept subdued by crack cocaine and/or alcohol. Eddie sets out to find his mother.
The novel is narrated from the points of view of Eddie and Darlene. But since Darlene is addicted to cocaine, her portions are narrated by Scotty, a personification of the drug that has control of her. His original voice explains how he came to be Darlene’s friend and why she has difficulty leaving him: “I am a badass drug with a reputation for keeping the loyalty of my friends and lovers in a very tight grip.”
The pacing of the novel is a bit of a problem. Day-to-day life at the farm is detailed. Then the ending moves very quickly when more detail would have been appropriate. Because much is left out, the reader may have difficulty accepting the ending as credible. The statement “It ain’t too often that the mother look at the child and get schooled” begins the change leading to the ending, but it is not accurate: parents constantly learn things from their children.
It is the characterization of Darlene that is noteworthy. The author succeeds in making a drug addict a sympathetic human being. There are times she is so naïve and makes such poor choices, but the reader comes to understand her motivations and the depth of her despair. The recurring image of a corpse as a piece of driftwood explains so much about her behaviour: “that piece of driftwood” becomes “that damn piece of driftwood” and then “that goddamn piece of driftwood.”
The book touches on a number of serious issues; racial injustice is certainly a focus. As an eleven-year-old, Eddie “understood for the first time that his classmates didn’t count for any more than he did. It didn’t matter if they never acknowledged the shadow of worthlessness above them, poised to crush them like Godzilla’s foot.” When a black man is killed in his store, Darlene observes, “Nobody white in the town admitted to seeing anything untoward. Nobody white would take the word of anybody black. It seemed sometimes as if an imaginary store had burned down and an imaginary black man had lost his imaginary life inside it.” Darlene blames herself for that black man’s death rather than the whites responsible for killing him because “They was just white boys doing what come natural in the place they from – down south, white boys be hunting Negroes like lions be hunting gazelles out in the goddamn Serengeti.” Certainly, Eddie’s lack of hands symbolizes the situation of the blacks who have virtually no control over their fates.
The exploitation of field workers in large-scale farming operations is also examined. Darlene and her fellow workers on the farm find themselves in the same trap of indentured servitude as blacks did under Jim Crow laws. One of the workers “often thought about the people who were going to eat the strawberries and lemons and watermelons he picked for Delicious, about what those folks would look like, how they might peel the fruit, how the fruit would taste, maybe about the fruit salad they would make, or the pie.” Darlene sometimes “took off one her gloves and put her fingers up on the sticky watermelon skins. She deliberately leaving fingerprints, hoping somebody gonna dust that damn melon for evidence and let her son know where she at. Way far away, folks from America and Canada . . .”
The book is definitely a worthwhile read despite its uneven pacing and some unrealistic events (like Eddie’s ability to fix computers though he knows nothing about them). After reading the book, the reader, like one of the characters, may “think about the people whose hands had touched those apples and that cantaloupe before I ate.”