Thursday, February 25, 2021

Iola Leroy: Shadows Uplifted by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper


One of the categories in the Back to the Classics Challenge this year is to read a novel by a BIPOC author. I didn't have anything that was old enough to count as a classic for this category sitting on my shelf that I hadn't already read, so I had to do a little research to find something that qualified. I found a great list on Book Riot of BIPOC classics, and I ended up choosing Iola Leroy by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. I'd never heard of this book or this author before, but I was intrigued by the fact that this it was one of the first fiction novels published by an African American woman. Hoping to broaden my literary horizons, I started reading last week.

The plot of the novel follows a handful of characters, but it mostly focuses on Iola Leroy, a young woman who is a slave on a South Carolina plantation. At the start of the story, the Civil War is ending. The Union army is has fought its way into the area and has set up came near her town. Slaves are running away in droves to join the Union army, and one of these slaves mentions Iola's situation to the Union commander. He immediately orders her release, and she is brought to the camp to work as a nurse for wounded soldiers. Her appearance initially surprises the commander, as she looks completely white. Eventually, she shares her story with him.

Her history is a complicated and tragic one. Her father, Eugene Leroy, was a wealthy slaveholder. Years ago, he was stricken with a serious illness and was nursed back to health by one of his slaves named Marie. Marie had a white father as well, and appeared white herself. He fell in love with her, freed her, sent her away to be educated in the North, and married her. They had three children together, one of which was Iola. Eugene made the decision to keep Iola's true heritage a secret from her, so she grew up thinking she was white. When she came of age, her father sent her and her older brother to school in the North. He subsequently died, and even though his marriage to Marie was legal and his will stipulated that she and the children should inherit all of his wealth, his family managed to find enough loopholes to legally disregard his wishes. They took over his estate and Marie, Iola, and her siblings were all split apart and sold into slavery.

The rest of the novel follows Iola and her brother as they try to reconnect with each other and put their family back together after the Civil War ends and slavery is abolished. Most of the pages in the novel follow their discussions as they share their thoughts and feelings about the role the African Americans should play in the post-war era and the potential they have to become equal members of society. Iola Leroy is an interesting exploration of the issues newly freed slaves had to grapple with in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, and a heart wrenching look at the pain and suffering slavery wrought upon their families.

After I finished reading, I was curious to learn more about Frances Harper, and to see how connected she was to the subject matter of this book. I learned that she was born free in Maryland in 1825. She published Iola Leroy in 1892, and in addition to writing, she was a teacher, an abolitionist, a suffragist, and a public speaker.  So, although she was never a slave herself, she did live through the time period depicted in the novel and spent a lot of time working against slavery. As such, I found this story interesting in a historical sense. Harper's writing, while perhaps a little overly sentimental, was a good example of what some African Americans and other abolitionists were thinking at the time. In that way, it was a bit of a window back to a different time that I don't know that much about.

I also enjoyed how Harper discussed so many different social issues relevant to the time period. Topics such as biracial children, interracial marriage, temperance, "passing," and reconstruction were all explored. I found it pretty disheartening to see how little some of the injustices and stereotypes people of color have to face have changed over the years. Many of the comments and problems the characters talked about still exist in some form today. For its perspective on social issues alone, Iola Leroy was a worthwhile read. 

As a work of narrative fiction, however, the text itself was not very entertaining. The story is dominated by character discussions, with almost all of the action taking place off-page and being described afterwards. Conflicts also seemed to be resolved too easily and unrealistically. There wasn't really any sense of suspense or tension throughout the story and the writing was quite fussy and proper. This was more of a chance for Harper to put her ideas about race and inequality out there - the actual plot of the novel felt secondary. 

Obviously, it's awful to be critical of this novel. It was a huge accomplishment for Harper to be one of the first published African American female authors and her characters' views on social issues of the day were an interesting look at the past. At only 220 pages, Iola Leroy isn't too much of a time commitment, so any readers interested in expanding their knowledge of the African American literary cannon would probably enjoy checking this one out.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2021 (A classic by a BIPOC author): 3/12

Total Books Read in 2021: 11

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