Review: Jubilee, Margaret Walker

I’d like a show of hands who’s heard of Margaret Walker’s book Jubilee, a 50th-anniversary edition of which was just recently released. Because I hadn’t, and I’m mostly angry with myself about that, but largely angry with America. There’s honestly no reason we should still be talking all the time about Gone with the Wind and I’ve never heard of Margaret Walker’s book Jubilee. Seriously.

(A note: You don’t need to defend Gone with the Wind to me in the comments. It has plenty of defenders already and it is doing absolutely fine even now that I have mildly criticized it. It will continue to propagate its shitty, glossed-over, sentimentalized version of American history for many decades yet to come.)

(Okay, now I have criticized it un-mildly. But it is still doing fine, I promise, and also, it would be okay if it stopped doing fine and fell out of print. We would all survive that.)

Jubilee is about a girl called Vyry who is born into slavery, the daughter of a slave mother and the white man who owns her. As the story goes on, we witness the progress of the Civil War and follow Vyry through emancipation and after, as she and her family struggles to find a safe home for themselves through the Reconstruction years.

I didn’t exactly like Jubilee, because I always don’t like historical fiction set in America (my most positive feelings about American settings for historical fiction are approx. three stars, which is where I’m at on Jubilee). At the same time, I can’t see any reason I didn’t read this book in school. It’s a classic, it’s accessible and reads quickly, it draws from Margaret Walker’s historical research as well as her family’s oral history, and there’s none of the kind of language or sexual violence (except the violence implied by Vyry’s parentage) that tends to give book-banning parents itchy trigger fingers. It’s courteously nuanced in its treatment of the white characters, so nobody could scream “reverse racism” at it,1 and it covers years of American history (the Reconstruction era) that often get skimmed through in favor of getting on to the wars of the twentieth century. Why wouldn’t this book be as standard an element of American curriculum as, for instance, Huck Finn?

It’s okay, y’all. I already know the answer. The answer is racism.

  1. Yes they could. People will scream “reverse racism” at anything, I have learned.
  • Jeanne

    I’ve never heard of this book. But then, I never found a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in any public library until I was an adult and living on the east coast.

  • helen (a gallimaufry)

    I’ve never heard of this book! But I’ve just been reading about Margaret Walker after reading your review, and she sounds amazing. Good review from you + interesting author = I will read this.

  • Never heard of this book! But definitely am interested now

  • Jessie

    Add me to the list of those who have never heard of this should-be classic. I too, am not surprised this is so little known but I hope that will change soon. Thanks for bringing it to our attention!

    ~Jessie @ dwellinpossibilityblog.wordpress.com

  • Never heard of it. I’m guessing the fact that so many people have not heard of it is your answer right there. Can’t be canon if no one has heard of the book or the author. Blame it on racism. Blame it on poor marketing. Blame it on something else, but the only things that get picked up as canon are those books that get people talking or have gotten people talking for years.

    (To be fair, regardless of your opinions about Gone With the Wind, it is not canon either. In fact, there is, to my knowledge, no Civil War-era novel or Reconstruction-era novel that is. Huck Finn takes place well before the war.)

  • Michelle

    I’ve also never heard of this, but sounds interesting. I tend to avoid slavery books, as they are usually very brutal, which I find upsetting. Wimpish, I know. I will certainly add this one to my booklist

  • Heather O’Roark

    I actually do like some American history so I think this one would be one I’d enjoy. Books set in slavery times can be hard, but if they are done well, I usually end up liking them. Also I agree with you – WHY wouldn’t we have heard of this book in school while we were forced to read other books by white authors? As you said … racism. Thanks for drawing my attention to this one!

  • Rachel

    I actually just heard about his book too. Everyone always discusses Gone With The Wind, so I was surprised to see that Walker wrote this. I love historical books, and even though slavery ones tend to be a difficult read (as they are very intense), I’d be interested in reading this book. Thanks for your review!

  • I’d never head of this either and I agree, it’s sad we’re all so much more aware of Gone With the Wind!