There’s a spirited, slightly defiant quality to the creative endeavors of Alice Randall. It took a touch of audacity for Randall, a Harvard-educated African-American woman, to pursue songwriting in Nashville, and to launch her career as a novelist with The Wind Done Gone, a retort to the cherished classic, Gone with the Wind. Her moxie has served her well, earning her hit country records and a place on the bestseller lists. She’s putting it to work again in her new book, Rebel Yell, which brings together two hot-button issues—race and terrorism—in what Randall calls “a very grown-up novel.” Randall notes that Rebel Yell’s characters “live in the real world—live on the same planet my readers do,” and the book is likely to rankle some of those readers as it touches on sensitive spots in the American psyche.
Rebel Yell is the story of Abel Jones, Jr., the child of a famous civil rights activist, who grows up to become not only a political conservative, but an important figure behind the ugliest aspects of America’s “War on Terror.” As the narrative moves back and forth in time, Randall alternately presents a young Abel traumatized by bombings and cross-burnings, and the middle-aged, right-wing Washington insider he becomes. Over the course of the novel, she gives readers a means of understanding his baffling evolution.
Readers are first introduced to the grown-up Abel in the restroom of a Confederate-themed restaurant. His white second wife and their children are seated at the table, enjoying the bizarre ambience, as Abel collapses from an asthma attack brought on by hay dust and horse dander. It’s an absurd scene, and there are moments throughout the book when Randall’s portrait of Abel approaches caricature, yet it’s clear that he is a tragic figure, indelibly marked by the racist violence that surrounded him in childhood.
As Randall puts it, Abel is “unable to understand himself to be both black and safe. He is terrified.” His terror is the catalyst for a doubly tragic fall from grace. “Abel’s fall is particularly compelling,” Randall says, “because he is a person two very different communities both treasure and recognize as treasure.” He first betrays his special birthright in the black community, and then tarnishes his success within the power establishment through his covert involvement with torture.
Much of the story of Rebel Yell is told from the perspective of Abel’s first wife, Hope. After his death, she seeks the truth about Abel’s work, both for the sake of their son, Ajay, and to reconcile her complex feelings about her former husband. Hope endured her own traumas as a child, but unlike Abel she finds joy in her black identity. Hope resists the desire for worldly status that afflicts Abel, because she is, Randall notes, “tethered to what truly matters to her.” Asked whether Hope could be seen as a heroic figure, Randall says, “I think of Hope as a loving woman, and yes, I know loving women to be day-to-day heroes.”
As in Randall’s previous novel, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, the relationship between a mother and son provides much of the emotional energy of Rebel Yell. Hope’s love for Ajay moves her to protect him from the knowledge of his father’s dubious legacy. Randall’s interest in the mother-son theme has personal roots, but she also places it in a wider context. “I think I was always intrigued by my father’s passion for his mother—his sense of being utterly and completely, without any doubt, loved and valued,” she says. “I am and was intrigued by the difficulty of conveying that feeling to a son when your son is an African-American boy and you live in America. Our prisons are full of men whose mothers lost that fight. I am intrigued to write about the women who win it.”
At the core of Rebel Yell is a deep understanding that there are no simple victories or losses, either in our personal lives or in society. Abel’s ascent to power comes at a terrible cost to himself and others. Likewise, the civil rights movement changed America for the better, but it nevertheless inflicted suffering and death on innocents. As the book makes clear, it also weakened the cultural bonds among African Americans. As Randall observes, “A high price was paid for freedom. Lives were lost and private cultural practices were lost. But I believe freedom is to be purchased at whatever price.”
Rebel Yell also contains an existential lesson about the destructive, dangerous nature of fear, whether it afflicts us individually or collectively. “It is my experience,” says Randall, “that terrified people and terrified nations must hold tight to their courage, to their humanity, to their very willingness to die before they would do something wrong.” It’s a lesson Abel fails to understand until after his wrong has been done.
Maria Browning writes from Nashville.
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