Toloki, the professional mourner at the heart of South African writer Zakes Mda's acclaimed Ways of Dying finds himself in Ohio on Halloween, just before the 2004 presidential election, in Mda's new novel Cion. On the street in the middle of a Halloween parade, he's befriended by Obed Quigley, a man in his late 20s dressed up as a fugitive slave. The Quigleys take Toloki in, and he learns of their mixed heritage white, black and American Indian which Obed uses and alters each time he comes up with a new scheme to make money, whether opening a casino or attempting to tell the future. As Toloki becomes more involved with the family, he hears the Quigley story from its beginnings on a slave-breeding farm in Virginia. Two brothers, Nicodemus and Abednego, form the base of the twisted Quigley family tree, and the book alternates between Toloki's story and theirs, as they make their escape to freedom across the Ohio River. The two are guided by quilts made by their mother, filled with codes about how best to escape. Ruth, the family's modern-day matriarch, honors that legacy by making traditional quilts, and clashes with her daughter, Orpah, who seeks to make art in her own way. In the meantime, Toloki falls in love with Orpah and the strange music she makes playing bluegrass on her sitar. Ruth keeps quilting and growing vegetables in the yard, while her husband, Mahlon, grows nothing but gnomes and American flags in his garden spot. All the while, readers are enchanted by the stories held in ghost trees, quilts and graves, illustrating the power and persistence of memory even in the modern world.
This vivid and lyric novel Mda's first set in America boldly illustrates the cruelty of slavery and the promise of freedom, the power of history even invented history to hold sway in the present, and the confusion and frustration that are so often present in America today.