The catastrophes that human beings can endure - genocide, holocaust, slavery - and not only live through but thrive in spite of, is one of the more impressive things about our species. In Breena Clarke's latest novel, Stand the Storm, the Coats family, most of them born into slavery, prosper despite the odds against them in pre- and post-Civil War Washington, D.C.
The family matriarch is Annie, spared the most backbreaking aspects of slavery because of her genius at sewing. She passes on the skill to her adored son Gabriel and her somewhat less adored daughter Ellen. The family, with the grudging permission of their master, Jonathan Ridley, go into business in a Georgetown shop run by Ridley's nephew Aaron. So feckless is Aaron that he largely leaves the Coatses alone to grow the business and practice their art - and sewing and embroidery are not only art forms, but the way Gabriel purchases his family's freedom.
Clarke excels in showing the ways the communities of both slave and freedmen communicated and helped each other - the way a curtain was knotted in a window, for example, could be a sign of safe passage. Her language is formal, which harkens back to the novels written during the period she covers, but her take on her characters is startlingly modern. Annie's love for her son has something vaguely incestuous about it, enough for her to keep other men at bay. Gabriel, though upright and moral, has a hard side. He never quite warms to the mixed-race child his sister is forced to adopt to save what little reputation belongs to the child's white mother. Jonathan Ridley is probably the most complex and sad of the characters. Though he's always cared for Gabriel, he is, in the end, a monster. Still, the reader feels that his position in a society as warped and inhumane as the Southern slavocracy has made him so.
The book ends not with tragedy, exactly, but an act of such plain bad luck that it's a perverse sort of triumph. What happens to the Coatses doesn't happen because they're black, and the victims of evil white agency, but because they're human. Clarke celebrates that humanity in all its flawed beauty.
Arlene McKanic writes from South Carolina.