An American Marriage by Tayari Jones was a great addition to my challenge reading list for Georgia… or Louisiana. The story was split–Roy’s family lives in Louisiana, and that’s where he is wrongfully convicted and serves five years in prison. Celestial grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and she received her childhood home as a wedding present when she married Roy–they are making their life together in Georgia when the story begins. Andre grew up in the house next door and lives there as an adult at the time of the story.

I am reading my way across the USA–3-5 books (well, I’m trying to keep it to that…) from each state, with an emphasis on books where the setting becomes another character, and where we learn something about the people, geography, and/or history of the state.

Right now we are in Georgia. One of the questions I had when I began thinking about Georgia was, “How is Georgia different from, say, Mississippi, or Alabama, or Louisiana?” I had a similar question about the Great Plains states when we covered Nebraska and Kansas. I didn’t get a definitive answer there, though there are a few Plains states left. I thought perhaps An American Marriage would help me answer that question about the South, but I’m not sure it has. Maybe when we cover some of the others it will become more clear.

Of course, as a Yankee and a liberal thinker, one of my main preconceptions about the South relates to race and racism–namely that there is a wide racist streak running through the people and institutions of these states. However, I have to say that, having grown up in rural upstate New York and having lived for about 15 years in Wisconsin, I’m not sure that what I read in An American Marriage or even in Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson is that much worse. Racism is certainly alive and kicking in the South, but I was surprised (and disheartened) that what we saw in these books is pretty similar to what I’ve seen and heard (and read about) among people I know in plenty of other places across the country. The recent shenanigans in Georgia to disenfranchise millions of primarily black voters are also happening in Kansas and North Dakota as well, and Milwaukee is often touted as one of the worst places to live if you’re black.

For anyone concerned that An American Marriage reads like a brochure for Black Lives Matter, rest assured that’s not the case. The characters seem to simply accept that racism is part and parcel of their existence–they don’t like it, but the fact that Roy is convicted of a crime he did not commit is not the spark for an ongoing protest movement. It’s just part of being black in America–which, to me, is a much sadder state of affairs. But we aren’t privy to courtroom scenes or legal arguments; Roy’s lawyer works in the background and ultimately succeeds off-stage. The racism is shown in some of the little bits and pieces throughout the book.

Andre showed up for us. He had been a witness at our wedding and a character witness at trial. Dre let me cut his hair, handing me the scissors to saw through the dreads he had been growing for the last four years. … The next day we took our seats in the courtroom, costumed to seem as innocent as possible.

And in this description of the kind of conversation most white people never have with their children–because we are privileged not to have to.

“Since I could remember, my father has told me how lucky I was. How I never had to struggle. How I eat every day. How nobody has ever called me ‘nigger’ to my face. He used to say, ‘Accident of birth is the number one predictor of happiness.’ Once Daddy took me to the emergency room at Grady, so I could see how poor black folks are treated when they got sick. Gloria was mad when I came home, eight years old, shook to the bone. But he said, ‘I don’t mind living in Cascade Heights, but she needs to know the whole picture.’ Gloria was furious. ‘She is not a sociological test case. She is our daughter.’ Daddy said, ‘Our daughter needs to know things, she needs to know how fortunate she is. When I was her age . . .’ My mother cut him off. ‘Stop it, Franklin. This is how progress works. You have it better than your daddy and I have it better than mine. Don’t treat her like she stole something.’ To which my daddy said, ‘I’m not saying that she stole it. I just want her to know what she has.’ ”

But ultimately, the book is not about racism and the appalling fact that Roy was wrongfully convicted. In the end, the book is about what that does to a marriage–how does imprisonment impact the lives of those connected to the person imprisoned? When a family member dies, we expect that those who survive will, eventually, go on with their lives. But what happens when that family member is sentenced to 12 years in prison? Is the spouse expected to fulfill her (or his) vows at the cost of her own happiness? And what about a career? With one spouse in prison, the other needs to earn enough to support herself. What if that career takes off and the free spouse behind becomes very successful–that quite often changes someone, even if only in subtle ways. That kind of change can put great stress on a marriage in the best of circumstances, but what if one spouse is absent–and unable to experience similar personal and professional growth? Add in a sort of “survivor’s guilt” due to a wrongful imprisonment–perhaps a family might be tempted to “write off” a guilty person as someone they are well-rid-of, but what if they know that the person is an innocent victim of the system?

For me, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones was an exercise in empathy–I could see both sides so clearly thanks to Jones’s wonderful writing. In many ways, I was rooting for Roy–I really agreed with him that marriage is meant to be a lifelong commitment, for better or worse.

These years have been rough on her, I am sure. But you know that they have been rougher on me. I try to see her side of things, but it’s hard to weep for anyone who is out in the world living their dream. All I wanted from her is that she honor the promise we made when we said to have and to hold, etc.

But, as you might have guessed from the questions above, I also very much empathized with Celestial.

At your mother’s funeral, your father showed what the connection is between husband and wife. If he could have, he would have gone into the grave instead of her. But they lived under one roof for more than thirty years. In some ways they grew together and grew up together, and had she not died, they would have grown old together. That’s what a marriage is. What we have here isn’t a marriage. A marriage is more than your heart, it’s your life. And we are not sharing ours.

One of the best descriptions of the debate came from a minor character who was dressing down Celestial’s father for taking sides.

“Now, Franklin.” She cocked her head toward the head of the table. “You didn’t ask my opinion, but I am giving it anyway. Look, Celestial already has to choose between Andre and Roy. Don’t add your weight to this. Don’t force Gloria to choose between her daughter and her husband, because you can’t win that. Don’t make your daughter feel like she got to lay with who you want her to lay with, like you’re some kind of pimp. That’s street fighting, Franklin, and you know it.”

Or this one from a fellow prisoner nicknamed the Ghetto Yoda, advising Roy about what to expect when he’s released.

“Remember,” he said, “your woman has been in the world this whole time. … I can’t tell you what I don’t know–which is what she has been up to. I have no idea, and neither do you. The only thing I know for sure is that everyone else’s life has moved forward, just not yours.”

And talk about powerful–the scene between Celestial and Roy when he returns hit all kinds of trigger buttons while still being so well written.

But what I’m supposed to be writing about here is how well the book works for my reading challenge. As I said, I’m not sure how well it differentiates between the various Deep South states, despite an observation that, “Mississippi is the favored contender for “worst of the South,” but Louisiana isn’t far behind.” But the book definitely has the South as another character.

One of the main themes of An American Marriage (and Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson as well), and, I think, life in the South, is the importance of family.

In Eloe, if you want to know who you’re supposed to be, you don’t have to go further than the family Bible. Right there, on a blank page, before “In the beginning . . .” is all you need to know. There were other truths in the world, but they weren’t often written down. These unofficial records of kin were passed from lips to ear. Much was made of white relatives, whispered about sometimes in shame, sometimes in satisfaction, depending on the details.

In this book, as well as several other Georgia reads, teenage pregnancy seems pretty common, with references to the short generations marked in the family Bibles, and non-traditional family situations due to abandonment by teen mothers and/or fathers. Roy makes this telling observation about his mother: “She never told me anything about saying good-bye, because as far as she was concerned, real men didn’t have any need for farewells because real men stay.”

As I said earlier, race (and racism) is a matter-of-fact part of this novel, and one of the most poignant depictions comes when Roy visits his mother’s grave.

Now it was time to pay my respects to Olive, down at what used to be called the “colored cemetery.” This graveyard dated back to the 1800s, to right after slavery ended. … There were other places to be buried; these days cemeteries are integrated along with everything else, but I never knew of anyone who didn’t choose to lay their family down at Greater Rest Memorial. … I passed trendy grave markers engraved with the likeness of the person buried below. These stones were shiny like Cadillacs, and the faces transferred onto rock were almost all young guys. I paused at one … and did the math in my head: fifteen years old. I thought of Walter again. “Six or twelve. … That’s your fate as a black man. Carried by six or judged by twelve.”

Another prominent Southern feature is food. While The Last Buffalo Soldier probably had the most variety of Southern comfort foods, and Between, Georgia had the most memorable, (and Among the Living had the funniest, with a joke about the Southern proclivity for lard juxtaposed with kosher households), An American Marriage has a few really good meals and dishes. (This one reminds me of my German grandfather’s recipe for fruitcake, which involved wrapping the cakes in brandy-soaked cheesecloth for weeks.)

Dessert was blackberry jam cake, a recipe passed to my mother from hers. To have a cake ready to serve on Thanksgiving, you have to bake it on the last day of summer, douse it in rum and seal it away when the fireflies are still thick on the breeze.

But, naturally, Roy’s first dinner after his release is a highlight.

Pork chops swimming in gravy, macaroni and cheese—brown on the top and shiny with butter. Mashed potatoes heaped in a striped blue bowl and next to that a stack of the white rolls Olive used to make. When you tugged them, they came apart in buttery sections. There, snug in a shiny silver bowl, were a few of the crowder peas I had been craving.

If you Google crowder peas, it turns out they are related to the more familiar black-eyed peas, but if you go a little bit deeper, you’ll find lots of true Southerners arguing that they are very different. I’ve mentioned once or twice that I used to do a lot of Indian cooking, and when I first started learning, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer number of varieties of beans, peas and lentils–red, white, black, green, whole, split with skin on, split with skin off, oiled–on and on. So I suspect the crowder bean debate is something like that–including the fact that an interested cook may not be able to find all of these bean varieties in other parts of the country. Here’s a link to a gardening site with a little more clarification.

In terms of landscape, I haven’t seen any of the red clay I was expecting for Georgia–maybe I have my Southern states mixed up in my Yankee mind! But there have been lots and lots of Georgia pines. Which, of course, got me looking for more information.

The locally-named Georgia pine is, apparently, the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris), however, the longleaf is much less prevalent than it was historically, due, in part to clear cutting. It used to the primary pine tree across the Southern United States, but has been replaced in much of its habitat by the loblolly pine (Pinus taeda). Unfortunately, the loblolly is much less naturally fire-resistant than the longleaf, and the loblolly also is not as genetically diverse. As seen in these pictures from Wikipedia, the longleaf pine needle bundles are quite large, and, per the name, can be about 8 to 18 inches long! The young trees go through a “grass stage,” also shown below, which lasts from 5-12 years and doesn’t look at all like a tree sapling.

Overall, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones was a wonderful addition to my reading challenge list for Georgia/Louisiana, and a thought-provoking read in general.

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