by Deanna LarsonSeptember, 1998
To the afterlife created in Alice Walker's latest novel, say amen and believe. This place is a spiritual last stop for 200 miles before the Highway to Heaven, complete with redemption's tools: clear hindsight, unadulterated instinct, forgiveness, and the chance to make amends for eternal peace. And it is from this afterlife that much of By the Light of My Father's Smile is narrated, with the living and the dead haunting each other in vignettes of lust, transcendent love, self-determination, pain, and elemental human nature. Susannah and June are the daughters of African-American anthropologists who want to observe the secluded and nearly extinct Mundo Indian tribe of Mexico. An agnostic, their father agrees to be a minister and convert the unbelievers in exchange for church funding, moving his family to the tribe's remote community in the Sierra Madres. By day he preaches Christian stories that he doubts in order to get closer to tribal secrets, while at night he defrocks and indulges his voracious libido with his haughty wife. Nature and the seductiveness of the tribe's beliefs soon affect 14 year-old June (also named Mad Dog because of her precocious rebelliousness), who falls for the handsome Manuelito. One day, she comes home beaming from her newfound sexual experiences, only to get beaten by her father, who has discovered that she is sleeping with the younger boy. Susannah, the docile and loving daughter, witnesses the beating and is pressurized to choose between her sister's and her father's love, while June, reeling from his violence, eventually rejects both him and men in general. June becomes an obese, lesbian academic who searches continually for trust and an authentic sexual identity. Susannah marries a Greek, and later divorces, becoming promiscuous in search of her authentic sexual self. Their dead father haunts both of their explorations, narrating moments from their adult lives with regret and insight into his wrongdoings. But it is not until June and her father meet in this halfway house afterlife that he has the real chance and character to make amends, once he discovers that it is to our knees that we must sometimes be driven, before we can recognize, witness, or welcome our own light. Walker's vision of death is a forgiving, restorative state, one that has the power to make both the living and the dead and entire tribes and communities whole again. Entwined with the novel's episodes from life and death are weighty ideas about nature, women's sensuality, and patriarchal controls over both, presented in a rich, unadorned language as powerful as muscles rippling under brown skin.
Deanna Larson is a writer in Nashville, Tennessee.