Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

Caren Gray, single mother and law-school drop-out, is the manager of Belle Vie, the historic Louisiana plantation where she grew up as the cook’s daughter. She accepted the position to provide a safe home for her own nine-year old daughter, but when a woman’s dead body is discovered on plantation land, and Caren finds blood on the sleeve of her daughter’s school uniform, all sense of safety flies out the window.

What did her daughter see, and why isn’t she telling? Are police suspicions of Caren’s staff justified? Why do the old slave quarters, preserved as part of the plantation tour, seem more haunted than ever? And how can Caren restrain her desire for her daughter’s father, who’s soon to remarry but who comes running when Caren needs help?

 This is a book of mysteries, both past and present, and of race and the shadow that slavery still casts. Caren, a black woman whose ancestors were held in slavery by the same white family for whom she now works, has a unique perspective, as do her employees, who daily re-enact a sanitized educational drama about plantation life for the benefit of schoolchildren. Belle Vie also abuts an active sugar-cane plantation which employs illegal immigrants, who live in conditions not all that different from Caren’s ancestors.

I enjoyed The Cutting Season, which dissolves any sense of Gone with the Wind-induced false nostalgia for plantation life, while evoking Caren’s love/hate relationship for her childhood home with all of its painful history. The many threads are handled well, but the haunted, lyrical, steamy tone of the piece contradicts the subject matter, and characters sometimes blatantly overreact to events to force the plot along. Three out of five stars, plus an extra half star for the uniqueness of the setting and the interesting point of view.

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