Book review: 'Jarrettsville' by Cornelia Nixon

  Enlarge Photo    
By Robert Goolrick
Saturday, October 24, 2009


By Cornelia Nixon

Counterpoint. 340 pp. Paperback, $15.95

On April 10, 1869, in Jarrettsville, Md., a young mother shoots her lover to death in the middle of the main street with 50 witnesses looking on in horror and then sits down with her victim's head in her lap, weeping uncontrollably, asking to be hanged before dark.

How this remarkable scene came to pass and its equally remarkable aftermath make up Cornelia Nixon's fine and compelling new novel. An award-winning short story writer and the author of two previous novels, Nixon has ghosts to exorcise here. "Jarrettsville" is an embroidery of imagination on a true piece of her family history, sewn together from old family papers and letters, newspaper accounts and graveyard records. But the story, as vivid as it is, is overshadowed by an even more looming ghost in the nation's family history: the legacy of racism.

"Jarrettsville" describes the tangled and ultimately tragic romance between Martha Jane Cairnes and Nick McComas. Their story is inextricable from the history of their small town, six miles below the Mason-Dixon line, and of the still unended agony of the Civil War. The two share high spirits and romantic passions, but they also share abolitionist views that run counter to those of many of their neighbors and family relations. It would seem simple enough to be young and good-looking and to fall in love and marry, but in the slanderous and racially charged atmosphere of the just-post-Civil War years, there is not a single human exchange that does not pass through a filter of distrust and rage. No moment of their lives is safe from the venom of racial hatred.

Just because the story is filled with hoop skirts, fainting ladies and dashing cavaliers on horseback, don't mistake it for one of those historical romances that feature hoop skirts, fainting ladies and dashing cavaliers on horseback. Nixon is too good for that. Her writing is like an easy-gaited horse; one notices not so much the power as the fluidity of motion. Some of the best moments are the quietest ones. For instance, we see Martha Jane and her former slave, Tim, settled peacefully 50 feet above the ground among the branches of a pine tree, old friends who have known each other since childhood and who have shared their first, experimental kiss. But then, at the sound of hooves on the forest floor, they both feel the fear of being caught in what is, even to them, an unacceptable and compromising position.

Later, Martha Jane and Nick fall in love against the wishes of their families, become engaged and move with agonizing slowness toward a sexual relationship, encumbered not only by the morals of the day but also by all those hoops and crinolines and corsets. Once the laces are finally undone, though, he gets her pregnant before their marriage, and they find themselves hounded by rumors that the actual father is Tim.

Unfortunately, the final third of the book doesn't live up to the passion of the earlier sections. The end of the story is both expected and less vivid than the beginning, but perhaps that is due, in part, to the fact that the conclusion to the larger story, the story of race in this country, has yet to be written.

The awful racial epithet that still haunts the American debate is said only once in Nixon's novel, at a town meeting by a die-hard fanatic who believes that the South will rise from the ashes at any cost. Even in 1869, it had the power to shock and repel, along with the power to enflame and embolden. But even unsaid, the word infuses every important action of this story and brings these charming, innocent lovers to ruin. The destructive force behind that word has only grown in the intervening century and a half.

Goolrick's "A Reliable Wife" was recently chosen as novel of the year by the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company