Fans of Robert Hicks’s debut novel, The Widow of the South, will revisit some familiar characters in his latest work, The Orphan Mother. Mariah Reddick, the “orphan mother” of the title, is the former slave of Carrie McGavock, the “Widow of the South” and mistress of Carnton Plantation. (Both women are fictionalized versions of historic figures.) The Orphan Mother takes place in the summer of 1867 in Franklin, Tennessee, a town experiencing the same seething post-emancipation tension as the rest of the South.
Mariah Reddick is a world unto herself. She is well-loved in her community of former slaves and well-respected in Franklin, even among a handful of its white citizens—she has worked as a midwife for many years and delivered most of their babies. But despite her warm relationships with neighbors and friends, she is a stoic woman who keeps her thoughts and feelings close. She struggles mightily with questions of identity and agency, and she has difficulty negotiating the murky sea of resentment, loyalty, and contempt she feels in the presence of Carrie, her former mistress, who seems to assume they are friends. Mariah has a dimmer view of their relationship: “I never thought there’d be a day where I’d be free, that was the problem.”
Mariah’s twenty-four-year-old son, Theopolis, is a cobbler by trade but holds political ambitions. One day he asks his mother to attend a political meeting where he will be giving a speech. Proud as she is of her accomplished son, Mariah is none too pleased with his plans: “No one could say that Mariah acted like a slave: she held her head up and met every white man’s gaze with a clear, gray-eyed stare. But no matter how she acted, she knew one thing: Negro folk did not speak. They raised their voices in a chorus only to praise the Lord and pray for a better time to come. They did not stand before white folk and try to change their minds, try to understand them, try to make the white folk see them. And now, this afternoon, Theopolis would be seen.”
Mariah isn’t wrong to fear her only son’s foray into oratory. While she is building her resolve to find out the truth behind the violence that breaks out that day, she meets George Tole, a free black man from New York—a man who has been free all his life. Haunted by alcoholism and a terrible family tragedy, Tole is a sharpshooting contract killer, but he has come to Franklin to shed the violence of his past. He meets Mariah at the home of Elijah Dixon, a magistrate of Franklin whose fifth child Mariah has just delivered. Tole, captivated by the midwife’s steely dignity and sense of humor, is roused by a new sense of purpose. If he stays “in this miserable town with its backbiting neighbors and terrible plots,” he thinks, perhaps he can redeem his own life—“perhaps he could make a difference to her.”
The Orphan Mother is a novel about family and friendship and the boundaries of obligation and loyalty. It’s about the power of knowledge and the temptation of revenge, about the psychic and social implications of the end of slavery in a racially unjust society. Filled with beautiful dialogue and finely-wrought characters, the novel is a must-read for fans of Hicks’s The Widow of the South or for any reader whose interest is piqued by a Reconstruction-era story told from the perspective of a former slave struggling to reconcile the oppression of her past with the promise—and terror—of a post-emancipation future.
Kathryn Justice Leache is a freelance writer who lives with her family in her hometown of Memphis. Her life among books has included work as a librarian and stints as a bookseller at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and The Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis.