Although Alex Haley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Roots, has been dead since 1992, works bearing his name continue to surface, capitalizing on the momentum generated by the soaring best-selling 1977 family epic which sold millions of copies. The posthumous canon of Haley resumed in 1993 with the more modest success of his last novel, Queen, the tale of the writer's paternal great-grandmother that produced a notable three-episode TV miniseries. Now, screenwriter David Stevens, who wrote Queen from the research notes and tapes of Haley, reprises his role as the late novelist's collaborator with their new offering,Mama Flora's Family, the fictional saga of the gutsy matriarch of a clan of poor black Arkansas sharecroppers.
The latest Haley-Stevens effort avoids the criticisms that surrounded Queen and the Roots phenomenon by sticking with a big multigenerational story touching on all of the large themes common to their work: familial love, persistence, courage, racism, temptation, and religious faith. Stevens, drawing on his formidable ability as a storyteller, spends ample time with the strong yet flawed Mama Flora, whose determination to survive in a brutal Jim Crow South quickly earns our respect. Following the murder of her husband Booker, she overcomes the deep sorrow from his death through hard work and prayer. Nothing will stop her from achieving a better life for her son, Willie, and her sister Josie's child, Ruthana, adopted after the woman's tragic death.
Stevens skillfully transforms the central story from the usual traditional, long-suffering Big Mama variety into a classic metaphor for the harsh emotional and psychological costs of the Great Migration confronting African Americans fleeing the South. It is the battle of Willie, attempting to adapt to fast Chicago life, that spells out the high price of assimilating into a new, hostile world. But he stubbornlysurvives and becomes a man. Like many blacks, he signs up to fight in the segregated military during World War II to prove something to a country that still denied equal rights to all. Maybe patriotism could change that, he thinks but it does not, as Stevens painfully reveals.
If the author etches accurate portrayals of Flora and Willie, the leading characters, through the depressed 1930s, zoot suit 1940s, and Eisenhower 1950s, he then reaches full stride in his astute characterization of the politicized Ruthana in the militant Black Power days of the 1960s and 1970s. Although she bucks the home-spun values of Mama Flora, searching for a self-affirming existence, the young woman keeps the bed-rock truths of family and tradition close to her heart unlike others in the clan who succumb to drugs and other temptations.
There is nothing fancy about the narrative that drives this sprawling family yarn, but the people and events will stay with the reader long after the last page is read. With Mama Flora's Family listed as Haley's final work, his literary legacy, rich with accomplishments, concludes on a respectable, competent note.
Robert Fleming is a writer in New York.