Shirley Ann Grau

The Keepers of the House

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The Keepers of the House Summary

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The Keepers of the House is Shirley Anne Grau’s 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Set in rural Alabama, the book follows the Howland family, detailing the lives of several generations, all of who have lived in the same house. Transitioning from the pre- to the post-Civil War era, the story serves as a metaphor for the long-established families living in the Deep South who dealt with the changing societal norms of the time. Exploring race relations and the hypocrisy of racism, the novel’s virulent condemnation of racist rhetoric, which came during the era of the Civil Rights Movement, helped provoke a public conversation on an issue that was relevant for the time.

The book is divided into four sections and an epilogue. The narrator of each section, Abigail, has omniscience and is able to convey the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of other characters. She says that her memory extends before her birth and that those of previous generations are like ghosts who surround her and even speak with her.

The first section follows the first William Howland, beginning with his passage through Mississippi as he heads to fight at the side of Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812. After deciding to settle in Madison City, Mississippi, William was eventually killed during a Native American raid, though not before he had six children to pass on his name. The book notes another William Howland, a descendant of the first William, who was killed during the Civil War. The present William then takes his place as keeper of the house. This William is a nonviolent man, finding more joy in the brilliant moon and the sensations the earth has to offer than in hunting. William was widowed while still very young and remains unmarried until he encounters Margaret.

Margaret’s origination in Mississippi also involves Andrew Jackson, who freed the slaves who fought beside him. Margaret’s people, the Freejacks, entered the area but kept separate from other blacks. They intermarried with the Choctaws, taking on many Native American customs. We learn that Margaret’s mother became impregnated with Margaret by a white man who drifted into and quickly out of the community. Margaret exhibited no outward signs of having a white father, but she remembers buttermilk being smeared on her face, her hair being dampened, and having been put outside to bleach in the sun.

When William meets Margaret, the two live together in the house for thirty years until William dies. In that time, Margaret has three children by him named Robert, Nina, and Chrissy. The children are all sent away to attend school when they are old enough. We learn that the townspeople accept William and Margaret’s relationship as long as they make no attempt to legitimize it through marriage.

We then meet William’s daughter, Abigail, who was his first wife’s child. Abigail had married an English professor who then abandoned her to fight in World War II when she was with child. She arrives home after ten years of marriage along with her daughter, who is also named Abigail. It is this Abigail, William’s granddaughter, who is telling the story. She is raised with Margaret and William acting as surrogate parents, and Robert, Nina, and Chrissy like siblings.

Abigail’s development and maturation make the story relevant to contemporary times. She attends grammar school at the time of Pearl Harbor and listens to the president as he declares war. During the post-World War II years, Abigail attends college and marries John Tolliver, a young man who feels compelled to run for elective office. Margaret’s other children, we learn, have grown up angry at having been sent away and are even more enraged by John’s public alignment with the Ku Klux Klan and his agreement with racist policies and doctrines.

After William dies, Margaret decides to leave the Howland house. Abigail and John then become the keepers of the house. John, however, leaves Abigail when Robert makes public that Margaret and William had actually married, legitimizing the three children. This cripples John’s campaign. The townspeople are infuriated when they learn this; they try to destroy the Howland house because they feel the family has destroyed the long-established customs of the community. The townspeople kill the Howland’s livestock and set fire to their barn.

In retaliation, Abigail sets fire to the vehicles of the townspeople, which allows her to save her house. Though she threatens to raze the entire community for her light-skinned brothers and sisters, Abigail knows that this is not the way of her grandfather and that continuing to fight her neighbors will bring about her own destruction too.

The Keepers of the House illustrates what Grau regards as hypocrisy among Southerners, whose feelings about race do not align with their actions. This discord is most prominent in the character of John Tolliver, who must confront whether he truly believes the racist rhetoric he purports to. When the book was first released, it received much public criticism. Grau was publicly attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan, who burned a cross on her lawn.