A work of fiction chronicling a life from the time of slavery to the civil rights era? Wow, I feel smarter already.
Meet Miss Jane Pittman, a 110-year-old black woman who lives on a plantation making meager wages from her white boss. She’s not a slave anymore, but she might as well be. She and her fellow workers break their backs on the farm and receive next to nothing. Undereducated but smart as a whip, Miss Jane is quite a character. An unnamed schoolteacher convinces her to let him document her life in a series of audio recordings, suspecting Jane might have quite a story to tell. Oh, and does she ever!
Jane’s story encompasses almost a hundred years, dozens of characters, and a multitude of historical events. Jane has suffered years of abuse and heartbreak and has aged into quite a fine woman. She’s loved and lost, suffered and lost some more. But ages of struggle have given her a wise outlook on life. She’s been a slave. She’s been a wife, an adoptive mother, a warrior. But mostly she’s been quintessentially Jane, a experienced lady with a life time of memories to share.
I had never read anything by Ernest J. Gaines before The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, but I had heard many good things about him. As soon as I got ahold of a copy, I devoured it relatively quickly (for a slow reader like me, mind). A slim volume with a lot of ground to cover, Jane Pittman maintains the no-nonsense and the plain speech of it’s protagonist. I must confess I liked Jane a lot. I adored her strength and her offbeat spirituality.
I found this book to be an enlightening and educational experience without being too preachy. It certainly contains a refreshing lack of white guilt. You’ve got your basically good, decent white men and your dreadful minorities, and vice versa. Your black characters are not above racism and barbarism and your whites are not incapable of compassion. I got the impression Mr. Ernest J. Gaines has a good head on his shoulders and has bigger fish to fry than moaning about the ghastly whites, while still accurately portraying how the white man has fucked things up for many.
On the down side, I found the take of keeping all the characters straight daunting, to say the least. There were about two Marys, two Alberts, and innumerable Joes scattered throughout this narrative. Characters are introduced erratically never to be heard from again. Also, I didn’t find myself liking the last segment of the book as much as I enjoyed the first few parts. Miss Jane Pittman is best when dealing with Jane’s early years or the white Tee Bob’s doomed infatuation with a mixed-race schoolteacher.
However, when Jimmy, a precocious black boy who Jane mystically insisted could be ‘the one,’ showed up, I was just about ready for the book to end. I guess after introducing a strong, progressive African-American character like Ned earlier on and leaving Jimmy little room to develop, Jimmy just seemed like an extension of Ned. Now I know the decision was somewhat deliberate, but I still found the part of the book focusing primarily on Jimmy to be a bit of a bore.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a fascinating novel featuring a delightful heroine. It’s brilliance is in it’s artful simplicity, and I am looking forward to catching up with Gaines’ other books.