Pale: A Novel
- By Edward A. Farmer
- Blackstone Publishing
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Carrie Callaghan
- August 28, 2020
The lingering shadow of the Old South hangs over this masterful contemporary tale.
There’s a distinct summer pleasure in watching dark storm clouds gather and approach, full of menace. Sometimes they break, crashing down upon us, and sometimes they don’t. But as we watch, we’re reminded of how small we are in the face of the world’s power.
Bernice is a young Black woman in 1966 Mississippi, and when she takes a job working with her brother in the large home of a white cotton-growing family, she becomes a practiced storm-watcher. Only, these clouds aren’t meteorological.
The mistress of the house, Miss Lula, is caught in an unhappy marriage to a much older man, Mr. Kern. Miss Lula has turned her youth inward, growing bitter as she mourns the loss of her young daughter some years earlier. Bernice, called Bernie, attends to Miss Lula as she wades through depression and self-inflicted illnesses, and the two of them develop a sort of rapport when Bernie proves herself brave enough to be honest with Miss Lula. They seem to see each other as humans.
Until, that is, Miss Lula decides to mend her hurt by inflicting pain on the other Black workers on the plantation, as everyone refers to the property. Miss Lula begins a dangerous game of flirtation with the teenaged son of Silva, her trusted housemaid, and it’s not clear what she intends to gain. That uncertainty makes the brooding threat even more disturbing.
Bernie intuits the trouble ahead and, subtly, tries to steer Miss Lula away from the teen. But she never tells Silva, and she doesn’t confront Miss Lula directly, at least not at first. Bernie’s limitations make her an intriguing narrator, one observant enough to detect the undercurrents of anger on the plantation, while her normalcy and lack of a crusading spirit prevent her from confrontation.
The result is a beautifully complex story filled with characters who sometimes rise above themselves, but often do not. Family secrets wind their way through the plantation, tying people together and pulling them apart, while the rich characterizations prevent those secrets from ever feeling melodramatic or implausible.
The complexity extends to Bernie’s relationship with the land itself. The plantation is, in some ways, a cursed place, but she willingly stays — partly from economic necessity and the pleasure of working with her brother, but partly, we suspect, because she loves the harsh fields and wild irises bordering them.
When one of Silva’s sons returns to the plantation after an absence, Bernie imagines he is conjuring memories of the exhausting cotton harvest even as he is thrilled to see her. She guesses, “And no matter how he felt about it now, that place and its memories and that negro calling were still a part of him, those scars just as deep today as they were only a year ago. For, truly, no one grows out of it.”
Bernie herself, when she finally takes a vacation after years of work, can’t seem to pull the burrs of the plantation from her skin:
“For the long part of the ride, I thought of the house…and wondered if Silva had killed anyone by now. I thought of Mr. Kern and Miss Lula’s antics and pondered what quarrel they might have next…I clocked when breakfast was served and the dishes washed.”
The novel hums with the permanence of the pain and lingering sear of the traumas we inflict on one another. At the same time, the thrum of affection patterns the text, as well. Each character, even the worst of them, has signs of heart showing through their often-ugly facades, and the result is a moving drama.
Author Edward A. Farmer places the Kerns’ plantation in a world almost without time. There are a few references to the Civil Rights movement roiling far beyond the fields, but for the most part, time ticks away in the hot, echoing halls of the big house much like it did a hundred years before. The missus sits on the porch, while Mr. Kern gives exacting instructions to his Black field hands. There is no threat of the whip, but the workers never forget the ever-present reality of racial violence looming over them.
When Bernie’s brother welcomes her to the plantation on her first day, he rushes her through the open back door before the cool air can seep out. “Don’t mess aroun’ an’ let out the cold,” he barks at her. With this concern for the rules and the white owners’ comfort, he lets Bernie and the reader know whose preferences are paramount here.
Farmer’s light historical touch and his plantation’s timelessness also remind us whose preferences are still paramount. The Black characters here have agency and success, but they operate in a world that is reluctant to acknowledge them. A reader might be forgiven for forgetting if this book is set in the 19th, 20th, or 21st century, and I suspect the author would approve.
Though time in Pale seems fungible, the world Farmer has created is specific and visceral, cushioned with bitter cotton bolls and weighted by heavy summer clouds. It is a masterful achievement.
Carrie Callaghan is the author of the historical novels A Light of Her Own and Salt the Snow.