Feldman, Suzanne. “Absalom’s Daughters: A Novel”, Henry Holt, 2016.
In “Absalom’s Daughters”, we meet two half sisters, one black and one white as they set off on a road trip in the 1950s through the American South in the 1950s. Cassie is a smart self-educated brown skinned teen who works in her grandmother’s laundry in rural Mississippi. Judith is white and illiterate and white, loves “colored music” and dreams of life as a big city radio star. These teenaged girls are half-sisters. When the girls learn of their father’s inheritance coming down in Virginia, they decide to make a road trip together to claim what is coming to them.
The stepsisters take off for the Deep South in an old junk car, with a frying pan, a ham, and a few dollars hidden in a shoe. It is the 1950s. As they travel they face injustices and we read of the South’s social mores and cultural practices and we cannot help but notice the lack of progress it in the attitudes of individuals most impacted by events.
At an early age, Cassie understood that Judith Forrest is her half-sister; Cassie is biracial and Judith is white. Living in Heron-Neck, Mississippi, the two live separate lives until their father William Forrest walks out on his family. Judith begins doing laundry for one of the town’s wealthy families. When Cassie asks Judith if she help her and asks for a portion of the money that Judith is being paid, Judith responds with a racial slur. Here we see the divide between the two girls and the stigma associated with their familial relationship, Cassie tells here that unless she is paid, she will tell everybody they are sisters and so Judith pays Cassie.
As the girls grow older, they come to an understanding of each other and an acceptance of their relationship with one another. When they receive a letter from the elderly Eula Bonhomme-Forrest telling Judith’s mother that a family estate is to be divided, but that she must journey to Virginia to claim her portion before the estate is settled. Judith’s mother wants nothing to do with the Forrest family but Judith is determined to get what she assumes is a substantial fortune. She convinces Cassie to accompany her to Virginia.
The characters are fascinating, engaging, and identifiable. Cassie longs to get out of rural Mississippi and to make a better life for herself and her mother. Her grandmother believed that the family can “rise” only if each generation has lighter skin and she hoped that a descendant would be able to “pass”. This is the catalyst that causes Cassie to leave Heron-Neck. Judith dreams of stardom and performing in New York City. During their travels, the two sisters interact with many colorful individuals and unexpected kindness, but they also face prejudice.
“Absalom’s Daughters” highlights the effects of racism, segregation, the Jim Crow laws and the economic impact on the sisters. While Cassie is a light skinned “colored girl”, Judith, passes for white.Cassie just wants to escape her grandmother’s plan for her to follow in the family footsteps in attempting to dilute their bloodline and produce a child who can pass as white.
This is a moving adventure and a powerful look at Jim Crow South. Judith and Cassie’s odyssey revisits this country’s long struggle to achieve compassion and justice despite the deep racial divide.