THIS THOUROUGHLY likeable first novel has many
attractions, the most important of which is its absolute truthfulness--its unwavering fidelity to historical fact and its remarkably sensitive depiction of the ways in which human beings actually behave. Anyone who lived in the South during the terrible and inspiring years of the civil-rights revolution will recognize from the first pages of Almost Family that Roy Hoffman has got it all exactly right: the interlocking of individual lives and great public events that made every Southerner feel as though he or she were living on the very edge of history, and the incredibly complicated web of intimacies and evasions that wove through the lives of blacks and whites.
Readers fortunate enough to be acquainted with the short stories of Peter Taylor will find themselves in familiar territory here. The social life of the Alabama city where Almost Family is set--Madoc, clearly modeled after Hoffman's native Mobile--is similar to that depicted by Taylor in his tales of Memphis and Nashville: an upper-middle-class world whose reticence and manners and rituals put a protective veneer over more disorderly emotions and entanglements. Beyond that, like Taylor's great stories "What Do You Hear From 'Em?" and "A Wife of Nashville," Almost Family is principally concerned with the poignantly ambiguous relationship between a white housewife and the black woman who runs that house for her.
But Hoffman gives no evidence of attempting to imitate Taylor, and probably couldn't even if he wanted to; his prose, though entirely serviceable and forthright, has none of the resonance or unobtrusive richness of Taylor's, he has something of a sentimental streak, and from time to time he reveals a quite considerable artlessness --though it is, on the whole, a rather winning quality in a book so resolutely good-tempered. Almost Family is a young writer's book, eager and unsophisticated and cheerful.
It begins as the story of two women and gradually becomes one of two families. The women are Vivian Gold and Nebraska Waters. When we first meet them it is 1946; Vivian and her husband, Edward, have come home to Madoc after two years in Washington. They have small children and large hopes; Edward sees a bright future in real estate and Vivian has aspirations for a career on the stage. They buy a house in a nice neighborhood and, as a treat to themselves that they are not entirely sure they can afford, hire a maid; she is Nebraska, who is approximately Vivian's age and is herself a mother.
The Golds are Jewish, enlightened and progressive people who find themselves occupying a strange position somewhere between the customs and mores of the region where they live and the traditions and values of the religion they profess. A friend of Nebraska's, urging her to take the job, says of Jews: "They's the nicest to work for. They understands." But the decision to hire Nebraska troubles Vivian, who says: "I grew up in one of the poorest Jewish families in Madoc. . . . The thought of having a maid is like the thought of driving a Cadillac. It's just not my style." A dozen years later she is still troubled, not merely at the thought of "some other woman's hands" arranging her husband's socks, but at the deeper implications of the relationship: "It was as if there were three-way marriages, double vows. The white woman existed for her husband and family. The white man existed for his wife and family. The black woman existed for the white woman, the white man, the white family, and her own husband and family."
It is a perception that dawns more slowly on Nebraska. Though a person of spirit and intelligence, she is very much a product of her time and place: eager to give love to "her" white family, eager to serve and be appreciated, unquestioningly aware of her "place." She sees the Golds as characters in a fairy tale: "Vivian was a princess in her small castle, the prince gone off to sell real estate for the kingdom." Only gradually does she begin to realize that, much though the Golds return her love, the situation is inherently unjust and--though she never permits this to happen to herself--potentially demeaning. Then, when one of the Gold children makes a comment to her about "your kind," she is cut to the quick: "She plunged her hands deep into the water that still stood from dishwashing and waited for her body to return to its full balance in this kitchen that seemed suddenly to be in the house of a stranger."
What brings Nebraska to this reappraisal of her situation is the dramatic parade of great events that forever changed the South: the school-desegregation decision, the bus-seating protests, the sit-ins, Birmingham and Selma, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent riots. Everything that happened to the South in those years happens to the people in this novel, and not for a moment does the reader sense that Hoffman is manipulating his plot in order to have his characters on hand as history unfolds. This is simply the way it happened. To live in the South in those years was to witness and/or participate in every one of these tumultuous developments. Nobody was untouched or unchanged by those two decades; what Hoffman has managed to do is to show, in an absolutely faithful way, how this process took place.
His people are as real as the events that crash around them. Not all of the things they do or say are especially laudable, but all are believable. Though Hoffman cannot resist a sentimental touch or two, he is very tough- minded about the ways in which people respond to each other and themselves; though all of the substantial characters end up taking more or less "correct" positions on racial matters, they do so out of the hard, painful experiences of their own lives rather than out of blind ideology. They are something we too rarely encounter these days in American fiction: real people living in a real city in a real world.