LET THE LION EAT STRAW
By Ellease Southerland
Amistad. 171 pp. Paperback, $12.95
Ellease Southerland's short, bittersweet gem of a novel was originally published in 1979. It arrived during the age of the ascendant black woman writer, an epochal shift in the world of African-American letters launched in 1970 by Maya Angelou's classic autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Let the Lion Eat Straw appeared two years after Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and three years before Alice Walker's The Color Purple, perhaps the most accomplished and best-known novels of the period, and its enthusiastic critical reception suggested that it belonged in such esteemed company. The Los Angeles Times called it "a remarkable first novel." "This book is a miracle," declared the Sunday Times of London. The New Yorker, Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune were among other publications offering similar praise.
But while Morrison, Walker and others became flourishing icons of a bold new era, Southerland has lived outside the spotlight. Now known as Ebele Oseye, she lives in New York and spends summers in Nigeria, teaching, writing, occasionally publishing. For years in the United States, Let the Lion Eat Straw languished out of print. Last year, Amistad reprinted it 25 years after its first publication. When critics and readers failed to take proper notice, Amistad launched it again.
Southerland begins her slender, affecting story in rural North Carolina, where Mamma Habblesham, an elderly midwife, lovingly tends to Abeba, a sweet little 6-year-old whom she has raised since the girl was two months old. They don't have much: Although Angela Lavoisier, Abeba's mom (her "New York mother"), sends $8 home every month, meals are likely to consist of little more than lemonade, bread and boiled peanuts.
The brief pastoral episodes between girl and woman demonstrate Southerland's knack for doing a little with a lot. A few plain sentences are all she needs to set the scene, establish the relationship and tell everything you need to know. For instance, readers will quickly grasp that food may be hard to come by in Habblesham's home but that love is abundant: "But weren't they two people proud of each other. Didn't have much of nothing, staying out in that one-room shack. Nothing but a rooster and a handful of chickens and a cabbage in the yard." But Mamma Habblesham is left with only the chickens for company when Angela shows up and prepares to bring her daughter to Brooklyn.
The novel takes place in an unspecified time, although Southerland notes that the young men up north have begun to gather beneath streetlights and sing what sounds like early rock-and-roll. Regardless, Abeba's journey fits squarely in the Great Migration, the movement of an estimated 6 million black Americans from South to North between 1910 and 1970. Southerland touches on the resonant folklore that drifted down from the factories and tenements of the North to tantalize sharecroppers and dirt farmers with dreams of indoor plumbing and pockets stuffed with cash. Angela Lavoisier has little patience with folk who put stock in such gilded lies. Her former neighbors press her for tales of riches when she returns to North Carolina for Abeba, but she quickly punctures their fantasies of big cities where everyone has electric light, toilets in the house and "streets paved with gold." "Not a bit of gold," she tells them. "Streets paved with nothing but trolley tracks."
When the story moves north, Southerland reflects that epic trek through her young protagonist's eyes. After three days on a bus, Abeba arrives in Brooklyn under an evening sky "so different from the pure black Carolina night. She wondered at the moody big bulbs that cast a tin silver glow in the heat. . . . She stepped with her New York mother into the tangle of evening voices."
To Abeba, her new neighbors were impressive folk who "seemed to command life" despite giving the impression of having "known for a long time about pain." By contrast, Angela, an unsentimental woman whose time in the North has hardened her, lost her rose-colored glasses a long time ago. She saves most of her scorn for the males in the neighborhood, whom she constantly derides as "lazy, lazy young men" who "will never get any place." They just "sit around all day," Angela says. "All night. Drink. Cuss. Make mischief. Mercy Jesus."
Abeba does so well in her new school that she skips two grades. After much struggle -- "ten hours a day, ironing at the laundry on Decatur Street" -- Angela buys Abeba a piano. The girl takes to it immediately and becomes a neighborhood marvel, turning out black gospel and sonatas, "music for the people who prayed first for the Promised Land and settled for the projects."
While chronicling Abeba's adjustment to big-city living, Southerland mostly relies on a spare lyrical style that could be characterized as urban minimalism. Whereas many black women novelists of the period experimented by piling on layers of richly descriptive language, she chooses sparse, evocative phrasing more likely to be found in poet contemporaries such as June Jordan and Audre Lorde. It is mostly effective, as when Angela's work at the laundry brings to mind a painting by Jacob Lawrence, another gifted artist whose work addresses the Great Migration: "Clothes flashed down on the ironing board, wrinkled, hit with a swift hot iron, smooth in two, three strokes." Other times, readers are left wanting just a few more words to fill in the blanks: "Abeba in bed alone these autumn nights. Her face near the hard walls. Awoke in soft ropey dark. Heard rats."
Even when she opts for wordier constructions, Southerland's style remains highly visual, and haunting as a photograph. "Downstairs the morning wind toyed with trash," she writes. "Iron gate rattled in the storekeeper's window. Jesus stared in young watercolor, stared from the silent door of the sanctified church. Thin leafless trees shook and were still. Pigeons walked and pecked the winter ground."
Inside Angela's Brooklyn apartment, Abeba bonds quickly with Arthur Lavoisier, her kindly stepfather. "It began to look like everything would be all right," Southerland informs us. Of course, that's her not-so-subtle way of telling us that it will be not all right at all. There will be violence and sickness and a mother who insists on perfection and the right to regularly dispense blunt, hurtful criticism. There will be sudden death, painful secrets, cold nights and long subway rides to a high school far from home. And there will be work for Abeba, always work: cooking in private kitchens, scrubbing pots, teaching music, selling pies door to door.
Abeba's adult life proves just as challenging. Shortly after graduating from high school, Abeba sees a way out in a handsome stranger who enchants her at church. Daniel Torch is from St. Augustine, Fla., an aspiring preacher with a heavenly singing voice. She marries him over Angela's objections.
The wedding takes place roughly halfway through the novel. Southerland manages to fit in 26 years of eventful marriage and 15 (yes) children in the next 80 or so pages. She achieves this improbable feat with impressive economy and credible pacing; years and events come and go without seeming rushed or skimpily told. And so much happens that a reviewer can share quite a bit about Abeba's adventures and still have plenty left for readers to discover on their own.
It's perhaps not Southerland's fault that I preferred the first half of the book. Young Abeba seemed much more compelling than the adult Abeba, perhaps because her life then was far less crowded. Fully grown, Abeba has so much to do for her nine daughters, six sons and needy husband that she rarely gets a moment to herself -- and that may very well be Southerland's point.
Southerland also makes a point of exploring the various ways in which individuals respond to adversity. In her hands, mother and daughter provide a study in contrasts. Long-suffering Angela is just as bitter and spiteful at the novel's end as she was at the beginning, never able to get beyond her conviction that black people "will never get any place." Abeba, on the other hand, responds to each difficulty with an admirable warm-spiritedness and faith in human possibility.
In this she resembles the real-life heroines who at least partly inspired this novel and others who emerged in the 1970s. Such books often celebrated black women whose labors in the North helped lay the foundation for the expansive black middle class that arose decades later. That kind of prosperity must have seemed mythical at the time, about as likely as streets paved with gold. "We sure do need a better day," opines one of Abeba's neighbors during the family's lean years in Brownsville. "We need something better than what we got. Ain't got nothing." But women like Abeba -- serene, optimistic, tireless -- never lost sight of that "something better," no matter how distant it appeared.
Touching and lovingly crafted, Let the Lion Eat Straw has been away from us for too long. Let's hope this time it sticks around for good. *
Jabari Asim is deputy editor of Book World.