Two Women, Two Stories
In her new book, ‘The Revisioners,’ the narrative stretches to encompass roughly 100 years and five generations.
The narrative covers 100-plus years.
Author photo by Melissa Schmidt. Book cover courtesy Counterpoint.
There are multiple reasons to read a novel by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton. Premium among them are complex characters cut from the richest soil. They rise up amid America’s history of slavery, segregation, economic inequality, ongoing racism, and the contemporary struggle for and against social justice. Appearing in heroic and tragic forms, the Oakland writer’s debut novel, A Kind of Freedom, told the multigenerational story of a New Orleans family’s rise, fall, and redemption along a continuum of the American Dream.
In her new book, The Revisioners, the narrative stretches to encompass roughly 100 years and five generations. Two women of color in alternating chapters tell their stories. Josephine is a widow, daughter of slaves, and the matriarch of a prosperous farm. But it’s 1925, and the Ku Klux Klan and a dispute with a white neighbor about a tree threaten her family. Ava, a descendant of Josephine, in 2017 is a mixed-race, single mother who is suddenly unemployed. She moves in with Martha, her wealthy, white grandmother. As Martha’s primary caregiver, the job is initially a dream, providing her 12-year-old son with improved education and enabling Ava to save money for a down payment on a home of her own.
A secondary pleasure found in Sexton’s books is the unraveling. Characters appearing at first noble and generous succumb to desire, greed, lust, addiction, mental illness, and more. Here, a white woman who at first befriends Josephine turns coat with devastating results; Martha, descending into dementia’s grip, displays extreme racism in erratic episodes that eventually cause Ava to flee.
External forces in Revisioners — unconscious or outright bias, white privilege, gender tension, poverty, drugs, and alcohol — share power with magical, supernatural elements, such as Miss Josephine’s “second sight” conjuring and Ava’s and her mother’s “mind reading” doula capabilities. Like the best work of Toni Morrison, hard truth realities for women and men of color in America and power drawn from ancestral or spirit-sent strength and resistance find balance.
Ultimately, marvelously, Revisioners is simultaneously authentic, human, grim, and yet, uplifting. Josephine in a chapter set in 1855 recalls her mother advising her on the uselessness of hate: “Whatever you trying to get away from, hate just binds you to it.” Like Sexton’s novels, these are good words to hold on to, now and forever.
The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (Counterpoint, November 2019, 288 pp., $25)