I grew up in Michigan, not far from Olivia’s farm. I spent years researching Olivia’s story – enjoying the challenge of trying to recreate daily life in another time and place. The characters in the Olivia series are entirely fictional, but I did base some details (including how a baby came to be named Mourning) on letters and journals passed down through my family. I received a great deal of insight from my sister Martha, who lived in a modern log home, hunted her own land, and was as independent, stubborn, and big-hearted as Olivia.
A hundred-plus years later, the Civil War is long over, slavery is a bad memory, but race relations are still an issue. The turbuluent 1960s are the setting as Charlene Connor revisits her great-great-great Aunt Olivia’s diary. She always felt a connection to her distant aunt and wondered what happened in the years after the diary ended. A stranger at her door supplies the answer. He represents a young black boy, Charlie, who is apparently a direct descendant of Mourning Free.
To avoid plot spoilers, let’s just say Charlene gets the sequel to that early diary. The novel segues into a third-person narrative of Olivia’s story, as it happened, rather in the the form of a diary. Some critics have complained that this story should have been delivered “free standing” without the context of Charlene and Charlie in 1967, but I strongly disagree. The two sagas are inextricably bound to each other.
The genealogy fascinates me. Fans of Book One know how very nearly Olivia could have born the child of a rapist, rather than the son of the man she loved, but couldn’t claim as a husband, race relations being what they were (and still are, even though to a lesser extent, today). We don’t know if Mourning is alive or dead at the end of Book One or even if he’s the father of Olivia’s child. The horror of his possible death brings to mind a line from Richard Dawkins (“Unweaving the Rainbow”): “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara … because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”
It is stupefying that Charlie exists in 1967. He would not exist, if not for one brave white woman who dared to love a black man.
The final section of the novel shifts racial riots in 1960s Detroit, taking on the suspense of a thriller, yet keeping all the authenticity of historical fiction at its best. Yael Politis delivers a satisfying closer to a splendid trilogy. Be sure to read Books One and Two first.