Book Review: ‘Wounds’: A Masterpiece for The Content of Its Characters

Lester, Julius. And All Our Wounds Forgiven. Harvest Books (January 17, 1996)

I don’t really want to review this novel.

Instead, I want you to trust me. Close this newspaper, go to a bookstore and purchase a copy. Read it. Experience it for yourself. “And All Our Wounds Forgiven” is that rich, that powerful.

Part poem, part polemic, part prayer, it is a wistful elegy to the civil rights movement, a celebration of its achievements and an acknowledgment of its failings threaded with the muted hope that the spirit of the movement remains alive somewhere in our hearts. Many readers will find it difficult. What author Julius Lester has to say about his subject is challenging, and he has chosen an unconventional way to tell his story. This is adult fiction; it discomfits as much as it comforts. Throughout, you must pay attention.

The story that drives “And All Our Wounds Forgiven” is deceptively simple. Andrea Marshall, widow of slain civil rights leader John Calvin Marshall, has suffered a stroke and lies comatose in a hospital. Two people have come to her bedside. One, Bobby Card, inspired by Cal’s example, dropped out of college to become an organizer in Mississippi during the ’60s. The other, Lisa Adams, became Cal’s personal secretary.

As Andrea lies hovering between life and death, Bobby and Lisa maintain their separate bedside vigils. Each has secrets to confess. Bobby must tell Andrea about his sexual humiliation at the hands of a white sheriff that led to his nervous breakdown. Lisa must tell Andrea that she was not only Cal’s secretary but also his lover.

The story is told in four voices — Bobby’s, Lisa’s, Andrea’s and that of Cal himself. “i do not know where the story begins,” Cal tells us in the book’s opening sentences. “though i am integral to it, i am not sure i know even what the story is as neither my life nor death constitutes the story.”

That last hints at some of the contradictions inherent in what unfolds. Cal both understood and despised the necessity that he be anointed to lead the movement. He was the moral conscience of America and an adulterer. Bobby went to Mississippi to heal centuries-old wounds, but was wounded so deeply himself he has since been able only to hurt others. Cal died in Lisa’s arms, but it is Andrea who has endured for 30 years as the symbol of his legacy.

That legacy is an ambivalent one. In the years since his death, Cal has come to understand that the world he helped make is vastly different from the one he hoped would come into being. “you think that you are changing ‘this’ and you are, but you did not anticipate the ‘that’ changing also,” Cal muses. “by the time recognition of the unanticipated consequences comes, it is too late to do anything — except hope you survive.”

The fictional irony is one that, of course, obtains today, and perhaps that is why — though John and Robert Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover and Lyndon Johnson appear in the narrative — Lester has chosen to name his hero after a different Protestant reformer. Some truths are better told in fiction.

But the truth, in the novel, as it is in today’s reality, is that John Calvin Marshall, “who rode history bareback,” may appear on a stamp and have a day named after him, but the nation whose soul he tried to redeem has by enshrining him rounded off the hard edges of his message. This, then, is a novel about failure. Cal puts it to Andrea this way, after she has returned from Shiloh to rescue Bobby: “I’ve always known the dangers. I’ve always known that to awaken the Negro to take action against the evil stifling him would also mean rousing the Negro’s own evil.”

In death, Cal has come to see that the movement “did not fulfill itself. there has not been any diminution in the ethic of white supremacy. instead racism has added legions of black adherents, making America an integrated society in a way i never dreamed.”

In the end, though, this is no mere polemic, but a novel about love and its challenges, the difficulty of loving someone who loves you, the difficulty and necessity of loving as well those who want to kill you. In the end, because of love, Lisa finds some measure of peace, and Bobby admits the possibility of redemption.

This is an important book. With it, Julius Lester affirms his position in the ranks of those black writers who understand that their mission is to tell the truth, and not to pander to mistaken fantasies. But Lester now also belongs with writers like William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison, who understood that the great American themes are to be found where race and sex intersect. They too understood the American conundrum: We remember at the cost of not being able to forget; what we really need to do is to be able to forgive.

This is an important book. Go read it.

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