I am always drawn to stories that feature a return to a family or community after a prolonged absence, and Gaines presents a poignant one in Catherine Carmier. Jackson returns not as a fresh faced enthusiastic young man ready to take up the challenge and duty to give to his community what he has received in California, but is instead disillusioned and frustrated with the unfairness and cruelties that seem to be true no matter where he goes because of who and what he is. For Jackson, leaving his small segregated community in Louisiana, was an opportunity to taste freedom through education and being surrounded by people who are more open minded. Unfortunately, Jackson finds a different reality than what he dreamed.
I was immersed in the story almost immediately. I felt for and understood both Jackson and Charlotte's perspectives. Jackson not wanting to be restricted by the harsh social prejudices that are adhered to by all sides in his home town is understandable. All of the racist rules had to have made him feel choked off from opportunities that should be available to him. As a young man wanting to feel respected and valued not only as a man, but as a full human being Jackson can't bring himself to willingly step back into the place that would be assigned to him. Yet, Charlotte wants Jackson to return not only for her own selfish reasons, but to also be a hopeful example to the other young people in the community. The tension from the push and pull of family and community obligation versus the desire to move forward unencumbered by the debt and unfair and unequal social restrictions are painful to witness. Even Jackson's fascination with a young woman, who in his mind should be within his reach, is yet another frustration and hit to his manhood added to his return home.
Unsurprisingly, Gaines smoothly incorporates complex themes of race, colorism, class, gender, and family obligations into a short book. My only complaint is that the ending left me wanting a full conclusion to Jackson's fate that isn't given. However, I have to admit that the ending does work because it leaves issues only half settled, which felt realistic. I am very glad that I am reading all of Gaines' books this year and Catherine Carmier was an excellent start.
You can read my post about my Year of Ernest Gaines project here.
By the author of A Lesson Before Dying and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Catherine Carmier is a compelling love story set in a deceptively bucolic Louisiana countryside, where blacks, Cajuns, and whites maintain an uneasy coexistence.
After living in San Francisco for ten years, Jackson returns home to his benefactor, Aunt Charlotte. Surrounded by family and old friends, he discovers that his bonds to them have been irreparably rent by his absence. In the midst of his alienation from those around him, he falls in love with Catherine Carmier, setting the stage for conflicts and confrontations which are complex, tortuous, and universal in their implications.