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Monday, March 26, 2007

Bonus: All Aunt Hagar's Children

An occasional series on books and movies about DC:

Edward P. Jones loves this city far more than anyone I know. He knows every street and neighborhood intimately, and it feels like he knows everyone who's ever lived here, too. In his second collection of short stories, All Aunt Hagar's Children, Jones continues to tell the story of the people of DC, and through them the story of DC itself. His DC is one of miracles, where a woman can turn blind at a moment's notice or root worker can cure a woman from witches. His DC is one of reality, where children are abandoned to the foster care system until their grandparents can take them in, or an ex-con lives in a halfway house on N St, busing tables and trying to put his life back in order. In every story, the city itself plays a central role. The quadrants -- NW, SW, NE, SE --mean something, and people's streets and neighborhoods tell the reader something important about who they are.

I strongly recommend reading Jones' first collection of short stories, Lost In The City, before All Aunt Hagar's Children. Characters and events that were on the periphery in the first book return to take center stage now. Likewise, the main events and characters of the first collection are sometimes mentioned in passing in the second, a wink between author and reader.

One of my favorite short stories, the title story of the book, is the only one narrated in the first person. It takes on a film noir detective feeling, a twist on "in walked this girl." In this case "the girls" are the hero's mother, aunt and their matronly friend from childhood, all united by a terrible secret that took them away from Alabama in their childhood. The mystery unfolds quickly, the whodunit profoundly sad. In fact, all of the stories are sad. I don't know if Jones knows any happy people in the city , but he certainly doesn't write about them.

My other favorite from the collection is called "Adam Robinson Acquire Grandparents and a Little Sister." In this story, a young child has been abandoned by parents to the foster care system until his grandparents track him down and bring him into their home, where his little sister already live. The child has already been in several foster homes and keeps asking his family when he can go 'home,' to one of the other foster homes. The story is heartbreaking, as you learn of the old couple's plans to travel that have been put on hold when their children aren't able to care for their own. The abstracts of welfare and foster care and drug use come painfully, perfectly alive.

Jones writes beautifully and has the awards to prove it. Some stories are strong than others, but they add up to a moving portrait of this city, past and present, and the real people who live here.


caroline said...

I really wanted to like these stories, but I just can't get into them for some reason. I picked this book up in December and have only made it about halfway through so far. Jones does write beautifully, but the stories just aren't compelling to me. Maybe I need to read Lost in the City first.

dc365 said...

You certainly have to be prepared for a lot of sadness and not a lot of resolution. Try picking up "Lost in the City" and reading "Young Lions" first. Then go back and read "Old Boys, Old Girls" in "Hagar." It was really interesting to me to see what had happened to Caesar after his cocky hustling days. Let me know what you think!