1945 Near Miss: Colcorton by Edith Pope

From the Dust Jacket:

In “Colcorton” Edith Pope introduces one of the really great characters of fiction-Abby Clanghearne. Growing up with a dreadful secret locked in her heart, striving always, through her brother Jared, to overcome the poverty and decay that have been her environment, Abby remains undaunted. Courageously, as she becomes adjusted to the situation, she accepts the ruin of her plans for Jared and, after his death, she takes on the responsibility of his widow and unborn child, and, at last, overcomes the horror of her secret by tremendous sacrifice, gaining an almost proportionate release from that horror.

The beauty of the Florida coast line comes alive in “Colcorton.” Whether it is the clean etched line of the great pine trees, the vast sparkling entity of the Atlantic, or the muted mysterious world of the swamp, Edith Pope makes you really see, hear, smell and feel the grandeur, the heartbreaking loveliness of this region. She transmits, without sentimentality, Abby’s love for this land that has been her whole life as well as her livelihood.

There are other unforgettable characters in this warm, deeply-moving book of people and the land they live on. Danny Strikeleather is one-wise and kind with eyes that make it impossible for anyone to lie to him. Beth Clanghearne is another-Beth, whose fragile appearance and quiet manner make people think of her as weak and stupid, but who becomes aware of a deep, almost animal, wisdom and strength within herself. And there is Clement Johnson, perpetually running from himself, weary, disillusioned, selfish, who finds a peace of short duration with the selfless, instinctively understanding Abby.

With its beauty of setting, its inevitability of outcome, and above all its brilliantly conceived and completely realized characters, “Colcorton” is a deeply satisfying book.

My Thoughts:

We return back to Florida in Edith Pope’s Colcorton, and while it shares some of the character and feel of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling, Pope’s novel is one with much larger themes and much more complex characters. Instead of focusing on a young boy coming of age in the wilds of Florida, Colcorton follows the third generation of Floridians, Abby and Jared Clanghearne, whose grandfather was a slave and plantation owner on the Florida coast, and whose past wealth and land holdings are now but the faintest shadow of what they once were, due not only to the end of slavery, but also because of a dark secret that has kept Abby mostly isolated on the ruins of the old plantation house: her grandmother was black, and thus her family’s bloodline, according to the general white public, is “tainted,” and Abby and her brother Jared are at risk to be treated as black themselves, losing their friends, their livelihoods, and potentially even what little is left of their family’s property and money.

Colcorton is not a story about taming and farming the wilds. Or even the story of a family living on in the shadow of their formal wealth. It is a story about racism, and about the almost paralyzing fear of what racism will do to their family, that causes Abby to hide away from city and civilization, keep her friends at arm’s length, and fight for the safety of her own family. It provides another view of racism in the early 20th century in the American south: a woman who is believed to be, and is treated as white, who finds out her own heritage and must do everything she can to maintain the deception because she has seen herself the way that black people are treated around her.

It is a personal and internal struggle with racism, of coming to terms with who she is and what it could mean not only for herself, but for her family. It is a struggle that proves to be the downfall for her brother Jared, who, after discovering the truth behind his heritage, turns to drink and gambling, falling in with the wrong crowd, doing everything he can to avoid the full acceptance and reality of his heritage. But it is not only the threat of potential racism that shows through in the novel itself, but the inherent personal racism felt by the Clanghearne family about themselves. Jared, unable to accept that he is one quarter black, turns to drink. Abby, who has come to accept her identity for the most part, still rejects romantic incursions and marriage proposals from her good friend and neighbor, which may be her fear of what could happen to any potential children if they were discovered to have a black ancestor, but is also a sign of the inherent racism she feels against herself, of being unworthy or unwilling to marry a “white” man because she is part black, which is ultimately a shortfall in her own acceptance of her identity.

Thrown into this mix is an author who rents out rooms in the house, hoping to use the change of scenery to help him with a story he is working on. Clement Johnson began by writing books which seem to be in the same vein as Edgar Rice Burroughs, books like “Dwight Gorman and His Aerial Trip to Mars” in which, “with the simple aid of a flashlight he had terrorized the superstitious Martian Emperor.” Hoping to capture the charm of the American South, since he himself is from the north, Johnson lives with Abby in the decrepit old plantation house and begins writing about people who very closely resemble Abby and her family. This comes to a head when Johnson comes to recognize the questionable heritage of Abby and her nephew Jad, and begins crafting a story of a Florida family with a black ancestor, threatening the future of livelihood of Abby and her family, and forcing her to send her nephew and sister-in-law north, where no one could find out about their family, while Abby herself sets out on her own, abandoning and pushing away the last of her friends and family in an attempt to protect them.

Pope expertly illustrates many of the aspects of the land around Florida in her writing, from the coast to the swamp, and the small and isolated communities still making things work outside of the cities. She brings to life complex, damaged, and broken characters trying to make something for themselves and their families, but most especially grappling with and trying to determine their own identities. And through all that, Colcorton is a fascinating and compelling read. But it is the aspect of racism, and the consequences of it, and the struggle with it in the pages of the book that really make Pope’s novel stand out.

While many of the ideas about race would have been progressive and controversial then, our society has, on the whole, changed many of those backwards attitudes over the years. But racism still exists in many systemic ways, and the words of Abby’s grandfather in his will, acknowledging that his children, because of their race, will not have “that protection and justice which is due in a civilized society to every human being” are still sadly true today, and much in the spotlight. Perhaps we have come a long way, but when 70 year old books about racism can still speak truth about our current society, it is clear that we still have a long way to go.

Favorite passage:

America had its Ghettos, in turpentine and nigger-town. Its secret police in every hamlet, city, town and village, in every settlement and junction never slept. The Gestapo’s name was prejudice, and its name was legion. Its speech had many accents. It said, “A good old time darky is all right.” “Give the others and inch and they take a mile,” it said. And throughout the south it did not bother to state the incontrovertible fact: “One drop of black blood makes of you a negro; there is no appeal from it this side of heaven. The best thing you can hope for is to be let alone.”

Why you should read it:

Like The Yearling a few years back, this book gives another view of Florida and the people residing there, but Colcorton also presents a powerful view of the damage of prejudice and racism. An immensely personal look at prejudice and rural Florida life, it is a compelling read.

Currently reading: The History of Rome Hanks and Kindred Matters by Joseph Stanley Pennell.


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