Of Love and Dust
by Ernest J. Gaines
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Of Love and Dust / 0-679-75248-X
When a young black man is forced to work on a white man's farm to "work off" his prison sentence, he astonishes his more moderate peers by entirely refusing to accept the situation. Rather than capitulate, accept the situation, and "make the best of it", he chafes under the cruelties of the landowner, even though his stubborn refusal causes him intense pain and fatigue. Our narrator is at first surprised and then horrified as the rebellious young man continues to rebel - even to the point of seducing the landowner's wife, and running off with her in the night.
Racial relations are explored carefully in Gaines' novels, and "Of Love and Dust" is no exception. The landowner is not explicitly evil; he is friendly to the narrator, and he has a relationship with one of the women who lives on his land. He loves the woman dearly as well as the two children he has with her, but he refuses to acknowledge that his position of privilege leaves the narrator no room to refuse his friendship, nor his "lover" any room to refuse his advances. At the same time, our young protagonist is no angel: he is rude to the narrator and brusquely brushes aside the narrator's attempt to help the young man. His seduction of the insecure lady of the house is marked with violence and revenge, only later blossoming into a rough-edged love.
Like all of Gaines' novels, there are no easy answers here. The young protagonist is undoubtedly guilty of manslaughter. Some penance should be made, but it does not seem right that the black prison members should be sent out to work white-owned fields as their "punishment". And yet, the produce is necessary and needed and the prisoners are given more freedoms than they would have in prison; on the plantation they have access to their women friends, as well as other luxuries. The situation is clearly wrong, but it is unclear how it can be ultimately fixed. Perhaps the answer is hidden in the title: only love and time can remedy this situation.
~ Ana Mardoll
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