From the post-Civil War South, along with several others, two black women migrate North in order to escape severe poverty and racism. But they realise that the situation in New Jersey is also not that different from where they came from. They become friends and end up supporting each other, but one act by their kids makes them sworn enemies. This event turns out to be the defining moment for the preceding generations as a trajectory of self-destructive behaviours is perpetrated that changes the fates of both families forever.
Coleman Hill is an upcoming novel written by Kim Coleman Foote, an ebook copy of which Netgalley provided me in exchange for honest feedback. The book is a mixture of fact and fiction, in which the author tries to reconstruct the past history of her family through legends, history, and imagination. The plot concerns two families headed by two matriarchs, and we find ourselves on a journey through the preceding generations of their children.
Spanning a time period from 1916 to 1989, the story starts with the exodus towards the North and ends with the mythification of history. The flow of time adds and removes events from memory and also from recorded history. Different people remember the same events differently, and normally it is the survivors' version that prevails. Coleman Hill methodically records the fallen and the forgotten, because, as Jebbie finds out during his search for Uncle Jack, once a man crosses the barrier of remembrance, there are many truths that can never be retrieved.
The novel doesn't have a proper plot or a strong narrative structure. It works as a character study of extremely interesting people. Different chapters have different narrators, and as the narration style flits between first person, second person, and third person, we get to see varying perspectives and the differences they make to the plot. Thus, as the novel progresses, we see different events from different perspectives, and each time we find a newer appreciation of the events that totally changes our relationship with many characters.
The novel serves as a document on how the effects of miserable experiences like racism, extreme poverty, and societal apathy can be transferred through generations and severely impact the lives of people. We find several characters who fail to identify their self-worth and prove to be toxic for themselves and all their loved ones. Their actions are deplorable and outrageous. But we end up empathising with them because we identify the seed of their misconduct.
We feel sad to see the kind of examples that are passed on to their children, and we feel sorry when the children also behave similarly when their time comes. Then we see small bright spots of self-awareness and attempts at redemption. We cheer and get desperate when they fall back. The last two chapters shine brightly when a man decides against his good judgement to visit his long-lost Uncle in the South, the epicentre of their family history, and when an old woman opens her home to the latest generation of Coleman kids and passes on something wholesome to them for a change.
Coleman Hill is a heart-tugging story, part fact and part fiction, that describes the plight of two families, spanning three generations, and their internal struggles to sustain and redeem. It is also a strong testament to the healing power of time and one of the best books that I read this year.