Book Review: “Against All Grain” by Danielle Walker
Danielle Walker’s first novel Against All Grain was published in 2009 and won the National Book Award for Fiction. She has since released two other novels, The Last Days of New Orleans (2011) and A Thousand Acres (2014). Her third novel, The Earth Makers (2016), will be her fourth novel.
Walker’s work is known for its historical fiction elements. The novel centers around a group of women who are attempting to build a new society based on indigenous subsistence farming techniques. These women live in the Louisiana bayou region during the nineteenth century.
They are led by Mary Lou Big Heart, an old friend from childhood who is now living alone with her daughter, Annie.
The novel explores themes such as gender roles, family bonds, and how people respond to change in their lives through adaptation or resistance.
In addition to these themes, the novel deals with issues related to race relations in America at the time. One of these issues is slavery. Another issue concerns land ownership.
And yet another concern is climate change and how it may affect human societies in ways they cannot anticipate.
The story begins when Annie, a half-white girl who has grown into an independent woman, returns from a long trip away from her home to find that her mother has become sick with worry. While Annie was away, her mother had become convinced that Annie had been captured by slavers.
Although Annie is alarmed about this, she realizes that in the time she was away her mother had only grown more fearful of the world around her. Annie decides that it would be best for her to move back in with her mother and take care of her.
At first, Annie thought that her fears were unfounded, but as the days go by she begins to notice people staring at her while she is out getting firewood and fishing. She becomes convinced that they recognize her as a runaway slave. She wonders if it would be best if she left her mother behind and fled to the north where it is safer.
But if she did that, she would be abandoning her mother to a lonely and fearful life in the bayou.
Meanwhile, there is another threat on the horizon: the region is in the midst of a crisis involving land rights. The United States government has been working to purchase as much territory as possible in the west from the Native American tribes who live there. Many of these tribes are not in a cooperative mood.
One tribe in particular, the Muskogee, have relocated to the bayou region from their former home in Georgia. The Muskogee are unhappy with the U.S.
government’s attempt to force them off their land. They have attacked several white settlers in the area and kidnapped a number of them, including Annie’s biological father.
The situation between the U.S. government and the Muskogee tribes becomes so tense that open warfare seems inevitable.
And, as always seems to happen during war, people caught on the sidelines have a tendency to get hurt.
“The Earth Makers” is Annie’s story: how she deals with her fears about the world around her and the people in it.
The story is set in the mid-nineteenth century.
Annie belongs to the Muskogee tribe, a Native American people who are originally from the south eastern USA, but have been forced off their land by white settlers flooding into their territory. They are a matriarchal society. Annie’s father was a white man, but she and her mother are both full-blooded Muskogee.
Annie’s skin is a hue darker than her mother’s, resulting from her father’s European ancestry.
Annie’s mother, whose real name is never given, is a middle-aged Muskogee woman who lives with Annie in the town of Covington in rural southern Louisiana. Her father was a white man who worked as an engineer in the area and died when Annie was very young. Her mother has told her that his death was suspicious and that he may have been murdered.
A strong-willed woman, Annie’s mother is a believer in omens and superstitions. In particular, she believes that Annie is cursed. She sees tragedies wherever Annie goes: if she finds a penny on the sidewalk, it means someone close to her will soon die.
If she throws salt over her shoulder, it means someone is talking about her (Annie’s mother believes that Annie is constantly being talked about due to her light skin).
She never wanted Annie to have an education, believing that too much learning would expose Annie to dangerous ideas. She is constantly warning Annie about the dangers out there, both real and imagined.
Annie is a young woman in her late teens. Her age is never given exactly, but she would be around sixteen or seventeen during the events of this story. She has a pale complexion, honey-colored hair, and green eyes.
She is of medium height and on the plump side, but not fat.
She has a quiet and thoughtful nature, and as a result she tends to be something of a loner. She is not anti-social — she has friends — it’s just that she finds more enjoyment in reading a book than going to a party. Her favorite subject is history, which might be considered ironic in that she is living through a very exciting time in American history.
(Although, as you will see, she would probably disagree with that statement.)
During the events of this story, Annie is a recent graduate of the Academy in St. Francisville, an institution of higher learning that offers courses for both men and women. Her favorite subject was history; she was less interested in the subjects that would help her find a better paying job, such as science or engineering.
She applied for a position at the St. Francisville Asylum and was lucky enough to get the job. The asylum is an exciting place to work at, as the patients there have a reputation of being escape artists, so the employees are given tokens to wear around their necks with strings that allow them to easily be snapped and used as a weapon against a patient who might attack.
Annie lives in a small apartment close to the asylum. Her mother moved in with her after she retired from her job at a trading post. Annie feels bad that her mother now has to work a menial job, but her mother insists that it is fine and seems to have a renewed zest for life now that she lives with her daughter.
One morning after you have arrived in St. Francisville, Annie walks you around the town and shows you the sights: the asylum where she works; the trading post where her mother works; the general store; the two warehouses (one for general goods, one for produce).
After the tour, you and Annie go back to her mother’s apartment. You are shocked to see that it is a mere five blocks away from the house where you were held prisoner. Your heart begins to race.
Annie notices this and asks if you are all right. You manage to compose yourself and say that you are fine, then ask what this building is across the street. Annie says it is the home of Mr. and Mrs. Booth, adding that they are wealthy philanthropists who remain in their house despite the fact that it has been vacant for months due to the fear of patients escaping from the asylum.
There have been attempts to break into the house, then?”
“Yes,” Annie replies, “but the thugs hired to do the job were caught and arrested.”
Annie’s mother butts in at this point to say that she heard that Mrs. Johnson; she knows because she saw them once when she was walking by.
You go to sit down and Annie’s mother gives you both a glass of iced tea. The two of you chat, and Annie’s mother says that Annie has spoken a lot about you since the two of you became acquainted. (You are not so sure about this, but you smile and say that is nice).
Your eyes keep darting to the house across the street. You are filled with a great restlessness. You excuse yourself and stand up, saying you need some fresh air and are going to take a walk.
Annie says that it is dangerous to go into the streets without a weapon, and that you should use one of the knives in the kitchen. You thank her and take one, slipping it into your pocket. You are filled with a mixture of fear and anxiety.
You desperately want to go back to the safety of your own time, but you know that you may have to make that attempt soon.
You decide that when night comes, you will attempt to get into the Booth house and hope that there is a working telephone that will take you back to your own time. If you get caught, you are not sure what the consequences will be, but you are fairly certain that they will be severe. You head out the door and walk quickly to the Booth residence.
You walk up the front steps and look through the windows. The inside of the house is decrepit and destroyed, just as you remember it. You go around to the back and find a window that is low to the ground.
You reach inside and lift the window. It makes a lot of noise, but you do not think anyone heard it. You crawl through the window and find yourself in a kitchen. You hurry across the street, glancing around to see if anyone is watching, then knock on the door. You wait for a while, then knock again. When nobody comes, you try the door handle, and to your amazement, it is unlocked. You open it a crack and look inside. Darkness greets you.
Is there someone out there?”
you hear a man’s voice ask from within.
You are about to leave the kitchen through the back door, when you remember what happened the last time you were in this house. You know that there is a shotgun stored in the kitchen closet and the sound of footsteps in the adjacent living room make you decide that it would be wise to arm yourself with it before leaving the house.
Of course, you have no experience with using a shotgun, so instead of loading it, you carry it as you open the closet door.
“Yeah,” you answer, “but I’m not here to hurt you.”
Then what do you want?”
the man asks.
“I want to go back in time,” you say. There is a long silence followed by some quiet chuckling.
“Well, you came to the right guy,” the man says, “though I don’t know why you’re standing out there in the dark.”
As soon as the door is open, you see a man holding a candlestick walking down the stairs. He pauses for a moment when he sees you.
What are you doing here?”
he asks, his voice angry.
You step back and pull the trigger of the shotgun, firing it directly in the man’s chest. Blood splatters out from the front of his shirt as he falls to the ground.
You enter the living room, moving slowly so as not to startle the man. You can now see that there is a kerosene lamp on a small end-table next to the couch he is sitting on.
“I’m turning on this lamp,” the man says, “but I’m still hiding behind the couch. Just don’t do anything weird.” The lamp lights up, and you are able to get a good look at the man for the first time.
He is perhaps in his mid-fifties with a weathered face and graying hair. He is dressed in old grey sweatpants and an old navy blue sweatshirt several sizes too big for him. You know immediately that this is John Wilkes Booth
“I’m…John Wilkes Booth,” he says, staring at you in confusion, “you’re not…you’re not a policeman, are you?”
“Of course not,” you say, setting the shotgun down.
“I killed a lot of policemen,” he says, “scattered over hundreds of years. It got to be a bit of a habit for me. I killed my last one in 1930.
Drunk driving. He ran a stop sign and smashed into another car.
You don’t want to know this. You really don’t want to know this.
“I’m not here to interrogate you,” you say, walking into the room.
“I just…I haven’t left this house in years,” he says, “not since that night.
The newspapers say that I’m a wanted man. I’m not, you know. I mean, I don’t think I am.” you say, “I’m here to take you home.”
I knew my time was coming soon,” he says, “so I’m glad you came when you did.
Are you a policeman?”
“No. No, I’m not.”
Are you sure?”
Booth stares at the floor in silence for a moment.
What happened that night?”
you ask, sitting down across from him.
You mean, aside from the killing of the President?
The escape, I guess. I haven’t thought about it in so long. It all seems like a fog now.”
So wait,” he says, “is my mom going to be there?”
You don’t know?”
“I’m not sure how all this time traveling stuff works. I’ve never done it before.”
“Oh…well that’s comforting.”
You walk over to him and extend your hand.
“Come on,” you say, “we need to go now.”
Do I have a choice?”
“You couldn’t have gotten far.”
“No. They had all the roads blocked within minutes of when I jumped. Still, even with all the roads blocked, I probably would have been able to get away.
There was one bridge I had to cross where the people in charge of stopping the riders were having a meeting…they got so involved in their meeting that they didn’t even notice me ride by in the dark. The world seemed so much bigger back then.
He hesitates for a moment, but then grabs your hand.
“I guess I don’t,” he says with a smile.
You close your eyes and picture the Oval Office. An instant later, you and John are standing in the darkness. You open your eyes to find yourself staring at a complete stranger: a young man with tan skin, dark hair, and dressed in modern clothing.
He stares at you in confusion.
“Um…who are you?”
“John Wilkes Booth,” you say, “you’re me.”
Your eyes widen in surprise.
“Holy…” you start to say, before the man interrupts you.
Are you here to kill Lincoln?”
“Yes,” you say.
“Well, hold on,” he says, pulling a cell phone from his pocket, “I need to take a selfie.”
What the hell? Why?”
“John, it’s me.
Don’t you recognize me?”
John looks at you as if he can’t quite figure out what you are. He looks down at his own body, staring in awe.
“What the hell…I’m…young again.
I’m alive! I made it back!”
He hugs you tightly.
“You did it, Grandpa! You brought me back from the past! This is great!
This is amazing! I can’t believe it!”
He takes out his phone and starts taking selfies with you, over and over again.
“I can’t believe it! I’m so happy right now! This is…”
He stops. He looks down at his body, and lets go of you.
No, this isn’t great. This isn’t amazing. This is awful. I’m a child.”
“I’m sorry,” you say, “I had to go back further in time to jump further forward in time. It was the only way.”
“This isn’t right,” he says, “this just isn’t right.” This is the best birthday ever!”
It’s not your…”
“I know when it is,” he says, interrupting you. “It’s a few minutes past one on January 23rd, 2017. I can never thank you enough for this, Grandpa!
What do you want?
Name it and it’s yours!”
“I just want you to be happy, John.”
“I will be! I’ve got lots of friends, a good job, and a wonderful girlfriend. Life is good!
Life is…wait…what’s that?”
You look past him and see a blue portal forming in the room. A woman in period dress steps out of it. She looks at the two of you and gasps.
Then she heads back through the portal.
What was that?”
John asks, staring at the portal.
A person? Are there more people like us?”
The portal starts to pull in light objects around the room. Paper, dust, even loose strands of hair are slowly drawn into it.
“I have to go,” you say.
But what about…”
You step backwards, falling into the portal. The light is blinding for a moment, then everything goes dark…
You wake up on the floor of your office. You’re back in the present. A woman sits in a chair opposite you, staring at you curiously.
“Hello,” she says, “my name is Heather. I’m a doctor.”
“I’m not ill,” you reply, struggling to get up.
Sources & references used in this article:
Category: Nutrition by K Levine, A Chaifetz, B Chapman – British Food Journal, 2017 – emerald.com