Springfield, MO: Moon City Press, 2011. 320 pages. $19.95.
Blue Sabine is the seventh novel by Gerald Duff, known for his vivid depictions of Deep East Texas in his numerous works, most recently the memoir Home Truths: A Deep East Texas Memory. His novel Indian Giver was a finalist for the Great Lakes Colleges Association First Novel Award, and his latest short story collection, Fire Ants, was a finalist for the Jesse Jones Award for the 2007 Best Work of Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters. Setting plays a role so paramount in Blue Sabine, one might call it an obsession; the novel takes its name from the Sabine River where the Holt family settles post-Civil War, on the border of Texas and Louisiana. The five generations of Holt women and men who tell their stories can’t escape their family’s tumultuous ties with each other and their collective past. Instead, they must learn to reckon with both.
Blue Sabine employs a Rashomon-style structure, with the novel divided into six chronological sections spanning from 1867 to 2003. Each section bears the name of a locale near the Sabine River, e.g. Double Pen Creek, Pine Island Bayou, Lake Annette, etc., and centers on a major plot event. The sections are composed of various first-person narratives—thus the reader sees a singular, pivotal event from the differing viewpoints of its participants. The poignant, resonating effect of this structure lies in the way we gain insights into the characters based on how others see them, and vice versa. The narrators are constantly observing, criticizing, and sizing up themselves and one another, creating alliances, fueling opposition, and deepening thematic meaning.
Consider this observation of the outspoken, sharp-tongued Abigail by her younger sister Maude, the second generation of Holts. The women are smuggling a black man who is being pursued by a lynch mob when their wagon is stopped by the search party. As her sister charmingly wards off Slater, the party’s leader, Maude observes, “We all laugh at that, of course, in obligation, Abigail louder than Richard and I, and I can tell my sister is warming to the occasion and would be prepared to converse with J.T. Slater until full dark, given the opportunity.” Later in the scene, Maude continues, “For once, I am gratified by my sister’s ability to work her imagination so fully into an expression of complete shock and belief. It serves well now in the current circumstance, if it never has before. I could hug her.” We glimpse a rare moment between the sisters who are often at odds, but when push comes to shove, display a deep love and respect for one another.
While the novel predominantly focuses on the lives of its female players, the deft precision in which Duff captures the vulnerabilities and complexities of the Holt men should not go unnoticed. Abigail and Maude have a brother, Lewis, blinded after a night gone wrong at a brothel. Through voice his character emerges, true to his surroundings and circumstances as he recollects the night of his blinding at forty—a man in his prime, recently thwarted by love, who proudly proclaims he “likes to work in the open air”:
Going into a whorehouse always made me feel two ways at once, from the first time I visited right up to the last. The first way was what might be expected—all wound up and nervous and excited and popeyed to see women ready and willing to crawl into bed with you with their clothes off. . . . But I never heard anybody talk about the other feeling that door opening caused, the one opposite from being all keyed up. . . . And that feeling to me was always a sensation of relief, a relaxation, like that feeling that comes on you akin to water seeping and rising and beginning to lift you off your feet, or the way the second drink of whiskey takes hold where you start feeling it in the tops of your thighs and in the muscles of your neck.
Perhaps Duff’s greatest strength lies in his stepping aside to let his characters reveal themselves, in their own language, following the tradition of Southern writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. His array of first-person accounts ring similar in diction, syntax, and idiom, but the insights arising from each individual’s particular situation and personal history resonate as honest and revelatory.
That Duff’s cast shares a fixation with the past and the region’s influence over their lives is the novel’s dominant unifying element, and results in a few minor drawbacks. Some of the narrators’ musings and extended metaphors about the river strike a similar chord by the end. Abigail, Maude, and Lewis are so lively and well-drawn in the mid-sections, the events in which they find themselves so unusual and compelling, that I found myself missing their voices in the contemporary narratives, wishing I could connect with Dicia, Dora, Nola Mae, and Clement as deeply as I had with their forebears. Clement’s eventual return as an Oscar-winning director is rendered believably enough, but this turn followed by the revelation that his niece Kay-Phuong has single-handedly skyrocketed to fame as a supermodel felt too quick and easy, and I was reluctant to buy it. That the Holts are all so obsessed with the binds of family verges at times on a slight heavy-handedness, but not enough to dissuade the reader from sticking with Duff’s historic saga until the end. The oil fields and pine woods of East Texas are a locale rarely visited upon in fiction, and setting is the silent character lurking from the riverbed in Blue Sabine, which will haunt you long after you’ve closed its pages.