In reading this book, visions of Hattie McDaniel immediately come to mind, in her role as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel actually became the first African American to win an Academy Award, that of Best Supporting Actress for this movie. Beulah, in Cook’s Wayfarers, could easily have had the part of “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind. The book also conjures up visions of Roots and the recent controversial movie, Django Unchained. Ironically, Django and Wayfarers were both set in 1858.
This book, beginning in the antebellum South, has many subplots, along with love interests and childhood devotion between two young men that carry it forward into adulthood. The author is meticulous in his character nuances, along with the time period. This is a powerful book – Cook is the Alex Haley of a new generation. The author weaves a heartrending story of a time and period that a lot of us would like to forget, a period of human deprivation and injustice.
The central characters in this book are George and Jerry Hawthorne, and Jerry’s childhood companion and former slave, Daniel. Beulah, the mother of Daniel, has a significant role in the story, also being the “Nana” to Jerry, whom Jerry actually considered as much a mother to him as to Daniel. Theirs, Jerry and Daniel, was a complex and uneasy upbringing, being separated by race, and mutual attraction to each other. Having to hide a secret and forbidden love affair, during a time of political and social unrest, makes for an even more intriguing story, which Cook is up to the task. It is as if the author has catapulted himself back into time and lives through these characters in his book. He is brilliant in this regard, if not intuitive.
The majestically beautiful Hawthorne Manor, a sprawling plantation, in post civil war Tennessee sets the stage for this amazing story of love, hate, and redemption.
When Jeremiah Hawthorne, the master of Hawthorne Manor, is murdered late one night on his way home by highwaymen, it sets into motion this complex and absorbing saga. The grief, loss and betrayal that Jerry Hawthorne, the Massa’s young son experienced, and Daniel, the slave playmate who was given to Jerry when they both were toddlers, and of how their extraordinary bond, in spite of their predestine paths; will endure the turbulent and sometimes violent ravages of time.
When Hawthorne Manor is dismantled and all the slaves and their families are ripped apart, and put into wagons, including Jerry’ beloved Beulah, his Nana and wet nurse, and Daniel her son, the two closest people to him in the world, in his blind rage, the twelve year old tries to fight off the slavers in an attempt to free them. And Daniel’s sense of betrayal and loss, as misconstrued blame floods his mind as he and the others, shackled to wagons like chattel are being taken to auction, he blankly stares with tears streaming down his face as the wagons creak and wobble along the dirt road, taking him away from the only home he has ever known. This is powerful, and the author’s vivid characterization of these events are a testament to his prowess as a storyteller.
Although the underlying theme of this book is a 40-year homosexual love affair between the central characters, Jerry and Daniel, this book is not just about homosexuality – this book is a history lesson. A love affair between a white man and a former black slave that was given to Jerry as a playmate as a young child, takes a back seat to the overall historical context of slavery and war. As a history lesson, the author makes clear that on April 12, 1861, General P.G.T. Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, beginning the start of the War Between the States.
This is a complex story, a story of love and war, told by an author that seems to capture the pulse of humanity and civilization, while at the same time attempting to negotiate the vagaries of race and sexuality. He seems to be intimately aware of the nuances involved in a relationship between men, while at the same time being able to put it into the broader historical context. It is a delicate trick on the part of the author to weave a homosexual affair between a white man and his former black slave playmate, in the midst of the social changes brought about by the civil war. Cook’s moving description of the lovemaking between two men, Jerry and Daniel, although unsettling for me, a heterosexual, somehow seems fitting in the context that the author wants to tell.
As with Django Unchained and Alex Haley’s Roots, the graphic telling and depiction of beatings inflicted on slaves for the slightest perceived insolence, the similarity is inescapable. There is a surprising climax to this well-written story by Cook, which includes a brutal murder, a book that I highly recommend on a number of levels.
Dennis Moore is a writer and book reviewer with the East County Magazine in San Diego and the book review editor for SDWriteway, an online newsletter for writers in San Diego. He is the author of a book about Chicago politics; “The City That Works: Power, Politics and Corruption in Chicago.” Mr. Moore can be contacted at [email protected] or you can follow him on Twitter at @DennisMoore8.
Wayfarers, by Winfred O. Cook (Xlibris Corporation, 2011, 261 pages)