In 1830s Mississippi, two young men find moments of solace with each other as they are kept as slaves on a cotton plantation.
Isaiah and Samuel live in a barn together on a Mississippi cotton plantation in the early 1830s. They are slaves in the American South, around seventeen years of age. Theirs is a life ruled by fear and humiliation. Keep your eyes down and always appear submissive, although that doesn’t always work. Paul Halifax, the plantation owner, and his wife, Ruth, mete out a justice based on their own whims. If a slight or wrongdoing is imagined, then it is as good as having happened. The two youths, however, have each other. In the precarious privacy of the barn, the young men carry out an intimate relationship and are lovers – as far their circumstances will allow.
The plantation owner has plans for Isaiah and Samuel. They are strong, fit young men and he intends to couple them with other slaves. In the economy of the South, slaves are treated like livestock, to be bred and sold. When Isaiah and Samuel don’t produce the required results, questions start to be asked. The others on the plantation know about their unique relationship, but when they are betrayed to Paul, the plantation owner, it sets in train a series of events that lead to tragedy.
The Prophets is the first novel by African-American writer Robert Jones, Jr. It’s an astonishing debut, one that achieves many great things. The story is written in a voice that is both assured and breathtakingly beautiful, a language that is full of sweeping Biblical cadences. The characters are fully drawn and three dimensional, with dialogue that punches through the page to speak with arresting clarity. The effect is to create an atmosphere that feels so real, one that inspires dread, fear, pity and sorrow. Lastly, but perhaps most important of all, The Prophets has a great moral authority. It delves deeply into the psychology of racism, the dark recesses of the human soul that allow people to mistreat others so abominably. Even more, it examines the pitiful moral collapse of the plantation owners and slave guards, how they have sunk so low, and know it, but cannot say it themselves.
One example will suffice. Paul Halifax, the plantation owner, has sired a son named Adam with one of the slave women. The two have similar features, and both know it, but it can’t be spoken of. Paul – a highly religious man – must pretend Adam is just another slave. One night Adam drives Paul out to a tavern, and Paul gets drunk, and he comes close to acknowledging his son. But of course he can’t, and it’s a sign of his depravity that his own flesh and blood he will treat as a piece of cattle.
The Prophets washes over the reader with its heightened poetic language and fully imagined characters, revealing a dark nightmare world without escape. It asks us to look into a mirror of the past, and see if we can see ourselves there.
The Prophets, by Robert Jones, Jr. Published by Riverrun. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books