BookBrowse Reviews All Aunt Hagar's Children by Edward P. Jones

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All Aunt Hagar's Children

Stories

by Edward P. Jones

All Aunt Hagar's Children by Edward P. Jones X
All Aunt Hagar's Children by Edward P. Jones
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2006, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2007, 416 pages

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With the legacy of slavery just a stone's throw away and the future uncertain, Jones's cornucopia of characters will haunt readers for years to come. Short stories

Following his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Known World, Jones presents a collection of fourteen short stories centered in Washington D.C - the same location as his first book of short stories, Lost in the City - a place that he knows well having been born and raised there. All the stories in Lost in the City take place in a contemporary time frame, but the stories in All Aunt Hagar's Children encompass the entire 20th century seen from a range of African-American perspectives.

Like Jones's mother, his characters mainly originate from the rural South and are coping with the urbanization of their lives with varying degrees of success. However, even though most have left to find a better life, many of the older people tend to long for the life they knew when they were young - a time somewhere in the short period following the northern migration of the children and grand-children of the former slaves, when it was still possible to feel part of a small community in the big city.

Reviewers consider this collection exceptional, although some feel that a few of the stories are uneven and tend to ramble. The strongest stories are felt to be those that are set in the modern day.

About the author: Over the past 14 years Edward P. Jones has earned more than $500,000 in book prizes (including The PEN/Hemingway Award for Lost in The City and the Pulitzer, National Book Critics Circle Award and Lannan Literary Award for The Known World, plus a MacArthur "genius" grant). In addition, he has published three books, taught fiction at Princeton University, George Mason University, and the University of Maryland and been published in a variety of magazines. However, money is of little interest to him - he lives in a building at the top of Embassy Row in Washington D.C. (having moved from a noisy apartment in Arlington, VA) but despite having lived there for two years, has very little in the way of furniture. When he first moved into his apartment, friends took him shopping but after the third week of couch-hunting he gave up - it was too much bother. However, he does own several hundred books and a collections of American stamps and miniature Japanese carvings.

He was born and raised in Washington, D.C. His childhood was spent in poverty. His mother, Jeanette, migrated from the South in the 1940s (at the beginning of the migration that saw about 5 million African-Americans relocate to the North); although illiterate, she encouraged her son's bookishness, recognizing the importance of education. His Jamaican father left when Jones was three, around the same time Jones's younger brother, who is mentally retarded, was institutionalized. Jones, his mother (who worked as a dishwasher and cleaner) and younger sister Eunice, moved 18 times during the next 18 years. He says, "Each place was worse than the place before". When he was 12 or 13 he simply stopped going outside to play with other children; "I would just come home from school and watch TV and read books" At first he read comics but then he discovered Black Boy and Native Son, both by Richard Wright, at his aunt's house, and from there progressed to James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Truman Capote. He says, "I was quite struck by the Southern authors, both white and black".

With the guidance of Joseph Owens, a young Catholic missionary, Jones applied to Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, where he was accepted and awarded a scholarship - becoming the first person in his family to attend college. He graduated with a degree in English and then returned to Washington where he worked odd jobs while looking after his mother who had had several heart attacks. She died in 1975 and Jones hit rock bottom - he couldn't find a job and was homeless. Eventually he wrote to his sister, Eunice, asking for $15 so he could take a bus to New York where he hoped to improve his prospects - the same week the money arrived he found a job in Washington working for Science magazine and received a message from Essence magazine offering him $400 for a story he'd submitted a year earlier. These breaks helped him get his life back on track and he worked steadily for a few years in Washington before enrolling in the MFA program at the University of Virginia. When he graduated in 1981 he took a job with Tax Analysts in Arlington, VA, where he worked for 18 years as a proofreader, and then as a writer, summarizing tax stories for the news.

Meanwhile he wrote - in 1992 Lost In The City was published and he started work on The Known World. He says that he spent 10 years brooding over the story, writing the entire thing in his head, so when it came time to writing it down he was able to produce the entire 432 manuscript in just three months. All Aunt Hagar's Children was published in September 2006.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2006, and has been updated for the October 2007 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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