Author: Leon Forrest
First published: 1983
Locale: the Deep South
Plot: Magical realism
Time: From before the Civil War to the mid-twentieth century
Nathan Witherspoon, a young black man born in 1937. He has a college education. He transcribes the family reminiscences of Sweetie Reed Witherspoon. Nathan has a special relationship with Sweetie Reed, who helps him gain a new perspective on his family heritage. The tragedies, antagonisms, and triumphs of I. V. Reed, Angelica Reed, Jericho Witherspoon, and the Rollins Reed plantation are written down by Nathan as his grandmother talks. As the precocious child of a failed marriage between a black man and his light-skinned wife, Nathan forms a new appreciation of his African American heritage as the story unfolds.
Sweetie Reed Witherspoon, who is ninety-one years old and is the great storyteller of the novel. The death and funeral of her estranged husband J. W. Reed inspire her to narrate the complex tale of her past. Sweetie Reed was once a minister and has a special relationship with God as well as possessing the oral history of her clan. She is also mystical and often has dreams within dreams. Her recollections of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction form the basis of the novel. Her memories chronicle the Witherspoon family from slavery into the twentieth century. Lying on her bed, coming in and out of reveries and memories, Sweetie Reed is the last in a long line of oral historians who maintained the continuity of the African American spirit through difficult times.
Aunt Foisty, a black conjure woman, who is more than one hundred years old. She retains a perfect memory that stretches back to Africa. She was wet nurse to almost everyone on the plantation, including Rollins Reed, the master. She possesses ancestral conjuring skills, speaks an African language, and is able to revive Rollins Reed from near death with her magic rituals and incantations.
I. V. Reed, the father of Sweetie Reed. He worked as a slave in the plantation house of Rollins Reed and was the illegitimate son of his master. I. V. Reed, who died in 1906 at the age of seventy-six, is presented as a crafty old man with a thousand voices and myriad identities. He is unscrupulous and self-serving, yet he knows the old-time whooping cries that gave birth to praise tunes, spirituals, and the blues.
Jericho W. Witherspoon, who died in 1944 at the age of 117. Sweetie Reed refused to attend the funeral and quarrels with her son Arthur. Jericho Witherspoon is an archetypal character from the African American past. He escaped slavery in 1850 and went north to become a lawyer and a judge. He was a large, reddish-yellow man, six feet, five inches tall and weighing 250 pounds. His initials were branded on his left shoulder by his owner.