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.