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The Keepers of the House

Author: Shirley Ann Grau
First published: 1964, by Alfred A. Knopf

I feel like this novel doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves. Before a few months ago I had never even heard of it, and now, having read it, I can only place it in my personal pantheon of Great American Novels. The Keepers of the House is exquisite in everything from its sultry and at times disturbing language to its irrepressibly keen examination of race relations in the American South.

Divided into different “perspectives” in the fashion of William Faulkner, the story follows many generations of the Howland family, and unfolds mainly through the eyes of Abigail Howland, the granddaughter of William Howland (actually he’s one of many William Howlands) around whom much of the historical drama revolves. It’s common knowledge in their rural Alabama town that William Howland has for years been intimately involved with his mixed-race housekeeper, Margaret, and has fathered three children with her (all of whom “pass” for white). What the town doesn’t know, however, is that Howland legally married Margaret in Ohio so that their children would not be born illegitimate. This sin against the white cultural codes of the pre-Civil-Rights-era South returns to haunt Howland’s granddaughter, as well as her racist husband, who is in the running for the Alabama governorship.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1965, this masterpiece of a novel should be read by anyone who is interested in understanding the painful subtleties of American racism and the hypocrisy and violence that inevitably follow. The Keepers of the House is at once an excruciating and beautiful portrait of what love can overcome—and what it can’t.

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