A LONG WAY FROM HOME

By Connie Briscoe

HarperCollins. 348 pp. $25

Reviewed by Opal Moore

Connie Briscoe's new novel, A Long Way From Home, is all dressed up to attend a party very different from the ones thrown for her bestselling novels Big Girls Don't Cry and Sisters and Lovers. The novel opens with the reproduced images of two "white-looking women" whose photos once sat atop the bureau of the author's grandmother. Briscoe learned that the women were her great-great-grandmother Susan and grand aunt Ellen, who were "slaves on President James Madison's plantation." These women ancestors were among the many black Americans once held in slavery, though their coloring and features did not betray their African bloodlines.

With these opening daguerreotype images, Briscoe seems ready to explore the lives of certain women and their daughters in slavery, and to dramatize the themes of race loyalty and racial ambiguity for slavery's black elite, the house Negroes. We are, in fact, introduced to the specialized servant class of light-skinned women reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson's Sally Hemings. Unfortunately, Briscoe seems less interested in the interior lives of women who lived in a different era and culture than in their extraordinary material trappings.

Briscoe's novel is a historical romance that falls somewhere between Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. By this I mean that the material collected for this novel clearly presented Briscoe with significant challenges that are technical, moral and market-based. Apart from the difficulty of trying to plot an original slave drama, which would be difficult enough, Briscoe is clearly aware that many if not most young middle-class African Americans frequently express weariness of suffering-slave depictions and resentment at the constant representations of contemporary African Americans as ghetto blacks. Briscoe's fiction has been praised, in part, for its depictions of economically successful African Americans.

Such pressures may explain this book's squeaky-clean view of slavery, in which Susan's mother, Clara, can declare herself pregnant, twice, by a white man whom the reader never sees (and whom Clara never entertains even in her thoughts). Was she raped? Was she duped? Don't think about it, the novelist seems to say. Instead, many of the novel's conflicts are located in the agony of a rip in the young heroine's gown or the possibility of losing one's wardrobe privileges. Briscoe includes details of a lovely handbag Susan covets during a shopping spree in Richmond but avoids exploring the feelings of the heroine at a peak moment in her life -- on her wedding night with her politically radical "full-blooded African" husband, who clearly represents a negation of her personal politics and lifestyle.

A related challenge for the novelist was slave language. Briscoe employs a patois of contemporary slang and shorthand Negro dialect. The novel gives us moments where the omniscient narrator expresses the thoughts of quadroon slaves in contemporary syntax and vernacular: "Susanne thought of Marcus, with his fine self." Slaves speak of "hang[ing] in there" or "catch[ing] an attitude." By contrast, slaves from the fields say things like, "Lawdy, Massa, you ain't gon' let 'em take us, is you?" When Susan, who looks white, speaks, her standard English is decorated with the French exclamation "Mon dieu!" And her description qualifies her as a traditional romantic heroine: Susan "gasped. . . . She could feel her hair spilling down around her sweat-glistened face. She thought she would faint. . . .Was there no escape from this living hell she'd entered?"

A Long Way From Home is more interesting for its unwitting portrait of a contemporary novelist coping with the attitudes of her intended readership than for its insights into the questions of character, color, race or women's culture in a slavocracy. And, in a painful and perhaps unintentional irony, while Briscoe tells us nothing new about women in slavery, she does manage to establish her own African-American bona fides as a direct descendant of a better class of slave, the mulatto and quadroon women of the James Madison plantation.

Opal Moore is associate professor of English at Spelman College in Atlanta.