Edward P. Jones takes up little space on library shelves. Over the last 20+ years, he’s published three books: two story collections and a single novel. Proving the adage ‘quality over quantity,’ Jones’ awards are considerably more extensive, from the PEN/Hemingway Award for his first title, to the Pulitzer, National Book Critics Circle Award, and IMPAC Dublin Award for his second, and his PEN/Faulkner finalist nod for this, his latest. In between, Jones also earned a coveted MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2004.
In a random moment of browsing through my overflowing shelves, I opened up All Aunt Hagar’s Children; once I started, of course, I kept going. Fourteen stories later (some of them stuck in ears, impeccably read by actor James Peter Francis), here I am … only to realize that I should have read Jones’ 1992 debut, Lost in the City, first because the two titles are actually companions to each other. Published 14 years apart, both collections contain 14 stories set in Jones’ home city of Washington, DC, with each story correspondingly connected to a story in the other book – that is, the first story in Lost and the first in All are a matching pair, just as Lost‘s 14th and All’s 14th are linked. Here’s hoping I can make the connections backwards.
A marriage begins to fall apart “In the Blink of God’s Eye” with the discovery of an abandoned baby tied up in the trees, while a family flounders because of illness, distance, and even religion in “Resurrecting Methusalah.” A single gesture – misinterpreted – destroys the last of an ex-prisoner’s already strained faith in his family in “Old Boys, Old Girls,” and a Korean veteran returns home in the titular “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” and must solve the murder of longtime family friend’s errant son.
In “Root Worker,” a young doctor takes her mother back to North Carolina in search of a local healer to exorcise the older’s woman’s witches. In “Common Law,” a once independent woman succumbs to the charms, and then to violence, at the whim of a man she can’t seem to let go. A woman inexplicably loses her sight in ”Blindsided,” while an elderly widower loses virtually everything in “A Rich Man.” In “Tapestry,” the final story – and my personal favorite – the not-lived life of a just-married young woman is interrupted by the life she’s just begun.
Jones, thankfully, is not a superficially tidy writer: his stories are not about artificial assurances, predictable narratives, easy endings. Each story is a microcosm to ponder and process; collected together, they weave together a diverse, dynamic tapestry – to borrow the final story’s title – of every day, seemingly ordinary African American life through a quickly evolving, unexpectedly changing 20th-century Washington, DC.
As rewarding as All proves to be, I admit I’m looking forward to getting Lost, already convinced I’m about to experience even greater enhancement and enrichment. I’ve just started Lost … stay tuned – I’ll be back in 14 stories.