January 29, 2016 by kitmoss
UNMENTIONABLES is an epic story of two pairs of lovers in the Civil War south. One couple is straight, white, and wealthy. The other couple is gay, black, and enslaved.
Their fates are intertwined in ways that none of them could have imagined.
Jimmy, a field hand, meets Cato, a house servant from a nearby plantation. At first, Jimmy, who despises whites, mistakes Cato for a white man but soon discovers that Cato is both a slave and the illegitimate son of the plantation owner Augustus Askew. As they become acquainted, Jimmy’s fascination with Cato grows into romantic love.
UNMENTIONABLES is also the story of Dorothy Holland, whose parents own Jimmy and his sister, Ella. Dorothy does not want any man to control her life, or to prevent her from granting freedom to Ella, her lifelong friend. When Dorothy falls in love with Cato’s white half brother, William Askew, she must persuade him to agree to her terms—and betray his role as a Confederate army officer.
Now a Book of the Year award winner! (Gay literary fiction / Gay historical fiction)
A landmark in gay black fiction, UNMENTIONABLES tells the story that was never told before, the story of gay African American slaves.
REVIEW by Christopher Hawthorne Moss
An astonishing look at an unusual family in the Civil War period. The Hollands and the Askews, white planters and their slaves, watch as the turmoil preceding the war turns their lives upside down. Dorothy, the daughter of one family, is fiercely independent, while Cato, who is both the slave and son of the wealthier planter, lives in between the two worlds. William, his half brother, and Dorothy have a rocky engagement beset with the bride’s anti-war, anti-slavery sentiments, while Cato, attracted to the fiercely anti-white field hand Jimmy, are the two love stories that bind this novel.
It is remarkable how many of the cast of this novel have their values challenged by exposure to the artist, Erastus Hicks, a Quaker who encourages both Cato and Dorothy’s independence. Teaching Cato to read, he is the author ultimately of the beating that causes both Cato and his lover, the field hand Jimmy, to run away. At the same time Hicks encourages Dorothy’s independence, her growing anti-slavery and pacifist positions, which, in a slightly convoluted way, causes her fiancé William to be captured by Union soldiers and sent to a prison in Chicago, where Dorothy heads in hope of freeing William.
Greene has a fascinating writing style, skipping between characters including the two dogs, Venus and Scout, to show yet another perspective on just how simple and how complex they live their lives. One must conclude in fine that the artist is the one with the most conflict, his attraction to Cato influencing him to lend his support to the runaways. The power of sex and family loyalty mix in disparate characters and settings to lead all to disrupt the expected drives of the characters. The wealthier planter, Askew, and his lust for a slave creates Cato. Dorothy and William are overwhelmed by their attraction to each other. Hicks is drawn sexually to Cato which leads him to teach him to read, and Jimmy overcomes his rage against whites to bond with Cato. The family loyalty is at the heart of everyone’s ability to accept the runaways in the final analysis: Askew able to accept Cato when he sees the young man accepts Cato as his brother, William’s decision to stay north of the Ohio River when both Askew and Dorothy join him, and most notably Ella’s being able to step away from Jimmy to support Dorothy and her marriage to William.
There were a couple things that puzzled me about this book, and I have no doubt someone will explain these to me. One is the title, UNMENTIONABLES… Surely this word is intended to signify more than just a slang term for underwear which doesn’t even appear in the book until well past the halfway point. I will have to forego the other puzzling occurrence to avoid a huge spoiler.
This is an intelligent book, though not, as the blurb describes it, the only book about African American gay lovers. There are others, though arguably few and far between. The literary critics must simply be overlooking the GLBTQ romance publishers and their books. But if this book is the entrée of readers into the broader genre, so much the better.