Chicago Daily News bookworms got a special treat when they opened the pages of the Sept. 24, 1966 edition of the paper: A Pulitzer Prize-winning, Chicago-born poet reviewing the work of another Chicago-based, award-winning poet’s first novel.
In 1966, Margaret Walker published “Jubilee,” a novel based on the life of a her great-grandmother that Walker spent 30 years writing. To review the work, the Daily News called on the one and only Gwendolyn Brooks. The two women came up through Chicago’s literary scene together (they were born two years apart and died within a year of each other).
A deeply personal story, “Jubilee” traces the story of Vyry Brown, a biracial woman born on a Georgia plantation. Her father, the plantation master, raped her mother, a Black slave who died when Vyry is a toddler.
Vyry eventually begins working in the “Big House” kitchen alongside Aunt Sally and later catches the eye of Randall Ware, a free Black man who works as a blacksmith. The two try to escape, but the overseer catches Vyry. She then survives through the Civil War on the plantation, witnessing the family’s destruction. When a kind Union soldier rescues her from an assault, she leaves the plantation with him and faces a whole new set of dangers as the two try to settle in Alabama and make a life for themselves.
Brooks called the book an “ardently researched epic” that’s “populated with breathers and writers. House and field slaves, slave-owners and overseers, ‘po-buckra,’ Margaret Walker knows them all, presents them all: and there is blood in both bit-players and stars.”
Throughout the story, Walker never shied away from the graphic realities of slavery (“a child is hung by her thumbs in a closet; old men are burned to death because they cannot work … after the Civil War the Ku Klux Klan burns and tars and feathers”), but she made room for her characters to find hope and beauty.
“Margaret Walker has decided that life is a mosaic,” Brooks wrote. “Therefore Vyry (Elvira), the milk-white, sandy-haired daughter of Master John Dutton and his black slave, Hetta, is allowed by the author to sing, sometimes, above her welts; is allowed to see most of the time, beyond her taint and spiritual mutilation.”
“Jubilee” filled in the realities that Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” skipped over, Brooks noted, but it also echoed the writings of James Baldwin.
“The pace of ‘Jubilee’ is firm,” she said. “The author rarely stops to cry or teach.”