All Aunt Hagar's Children
is a book of short stories about Washington, D.C. by Edward P. Jones. Comprising fourteen stories, the book focuses primarily on the lives of African-American residents of “The District,” and the experiences of those who are adjacent to the political powerhouse of the nation, and yet have few rights. The book is set mostly in the early twentieth century, moving into the years of the Korean War and beyond. Though the stories are distinct in plot and theme, they are connected by a dedication to telling the stories of those whose lives are often made invisible by power and history.
These stories are particularly concerned with the fascinating and tenuous betweenness of Washington D.C. Particularly, Jones focuses on the migrants who come to the city from a wide variety of backgrounds, and how D.C. is both reminiscent of Southern roots and distinctly tied to Northern traditions. Many of the narrators and secondary characters of Jones's stories are Southerners who have arrived in D.C. in the hopes of beginning anew.
In “In the Blink of God's Eye,” Ruth Patterson and her husband, Aubrey, are a long way from home when they move from Arlington, Virginia to Washington, D.C. In 1901, when the story is set, the only method of transportation from Virginia to D.C. for the African American couple is by foot or using a hired wagon. Despite the hardship, they embark on the journey, ending up living in a boarding house, working for Aubrey’s aunt, who runs the place. The house is designated “for coloreds only,” and Aubrey works there to pay their bills. While Aubrey loves the hustle and bustle of city life, Ruth is put off by the drunken violence of the city. She sees drunken women fall in the street and hears wolves walking the streets at night. One day, she walks outside to see a bundle hanging from the apple tree outside the boardinghouse. She pokes it with a knife she keeps on her person, discovering a living, breathing baby inside. Though Aubrey wanders the streets looking for the child's mother, Ruth is thrilled and takes in the baby as her own, believing that in D.C., babies grow on trees. As Ruth's attention shifts from husband to child, the couple is forced to rediscover the nuances of their relationship.
“All Aunt Hagar's Children” is narrated by a Korean War veteran turned detective, who has taken on the task of investigating the murder of a family friend. Miss Agatha, a friend of the narrator’s mother, insists that someone uncover what happened to her child; the narrator’s mother, seeing her friend’s grief, guilts her son into doing some poking around based on his tenuous military experience. The police don't care, seeing the death as just another black murder, and so the narrator puts off a cross-country move to Alaska to dig into the life of the neighborhood, hoping to find something of interest, and fast. As he digs deeper, he realizes that the death of Miss Agatha's son is inextricably tied to Miss Agatha’s own violent childhood in the deep south.
In the story “Tapestry,” another newlywed couple leaves rural life behind to find both hope and disappointment in the city. In other stories, narrators are fresh off plantations, having survived years as slaves, and in others, the characters have decades of education behind them but still struggle to make ends meet and life work in a challenging social and economic climate. Regardless of their circumstances, the characters are always morally and emotionally complex, and Jones paints a portrait of their individual lives as well as the places they call home, inside and outside the city.
Edward P. Jones is an African-American novelist born and raised in Washington, D.C. He is the author of dozens of short stories and three books: Lost in the City
, The Known World
, and All Aunt Hagar's Children.
He is the recipient of many awards for his books and stories, including two National Book Awards, a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, a National Book Critics Circle Award, an International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and multiple PEN Awards. All Aunt Hagar's Children
is his most recent work, published in 2006.