In part I of this review, I offered my caveats and disclaimers about Grace, by Natashia Deón. If, like me, you find the triumvirate of sex, swearing, and violence unsettling, you might think twice before picking up this realistic novel set in the Civil War-era South.
But Japanese filmmaker Akiro Kurasawa said, “To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.” Deón’s resolute realism is a brutal kind of artistry. It requires us to face the moral and physical carnage committed in the name of slavery. But the persistent presence of the titular quality–grace–even in seemingly irredeemable circumstances underscores its invincibility.
Perceiving its subtle workings requires some effort, and Deon’s narrative reflects that fact. Early on Naomi defines grace as “getting a good thing, even when you don’t deserve it.” But as in the real world, grace takes many forms. One is the redemption experienced by characters like the madam Cynthia or slaveowner Annie, who go against their own established habits to do what’s right, sometimes at great cost.
Another form of grace manifests through Charles the blacksmith, who takes in the homeless and friendless Naomi and, later, her orphaned daughter, Josey. (See my review of Once Upon a River, part I, for a parallel depiction of an adoptive father. I also find it interesting that similar themes related to fatherhood arise in both books–who one’s father is, who he isn’t, and whether it matters.)
One could even construe as a sort of grace the dispensation that allows Naomi to hover over her daughter after death. One wouldn’t want to construct a theology around this literary device. But one of the many tragedies of slavery was that it robbed both mothers and fathers of the power to protect their children. In Grace, whether by her own choice or that of Providence, Naomi’s spirit tarries until she is assured that Josey is able to protect her children in a way Naomi could not.
What drives Naomi throughout much of the book, however, is not grace or forgiveness but a thirst for vengeance against Josey’s aggressor. In a rare moment of interaction between Naomi and the living, a slave woman, Bessie, directs a soliloquy at the invisible spirit-Naomi.
“Forgive … If you ever plan to go home, you got to forgive.”
When Naomi objects that she only intends to mete out what the object of her vengeance deserves, Bessie answers, “Don’t matter. ‘Cause don’t nobody deserve forgiveness. Nobody. Not even you. … Revenge ain’t for you to do. What’s done is done. Ain’t no justice. Only grace.”
In light of this dialogue, the penultimate scene, coming in a chapter titled “Judgement,” raises some questions. Does it depict justice? Vengeance? Self-defense? Restitution? Whatever philosophical labels one may put on it, as readers we feel the outcome is utterly justified. (In my review of Once Upon a River, I discuss a similarly ambiguous scene late in that book that raises related, though different, questions regarding justice and authorial intent.)
Perhaps the most pointed demonstration of grace is the closing scene, in which Naomi’s liberated spirit is consumed by Love. At significant points in her life Naomi has been exploited, made vulnerable, betrayed. But in the end, her redeemed spirit is stripped bare and she is, like Adam and Eve in the garden, unashamed. “I’m naked. Fearing nothing. Loved.”
Deón’s book, published in 2017, does not overtly address the 2020 conversation about racism and the legacy of slavery in America. But Bessie’s words illustrate the fact that one cannot speak of instituting justice where the history of slavery is concerned. No reparations can make up for generations of lost and ruined lives, or for the white souls warped by the institution of slavery. That does not mean we should not expect equality in our current society, and perhaps even some form of reparations. But some measure of grace–perhaps in multiple forms–is required if our country is ever to move forward.
Note: Besides being an award-winning novelist, Natashia Deón is a professor, practicing lawyer, wife, mother, and activist on behalf of restoration, reconciliation, and justice. One of her projects is a proposed bill that, if adopted, would enact a list of seven practices intended to prevent fatal shootings by law enforcement officers. Another is Redeemed, a criminal reentry program that assists qualified applicants in clearing their records.
To read about a different service to ex-offenders, check back soon for a review of Some Form of Grace, by Dee Dee Chumley.