The Keepers of the House
|Author||Shirley Ann Grau|
|Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
The Keepers of the House is a 1964 novel by Shirley Ann Grau set in rural Alabama and covering seven generations of the Howland family that lived in the same house and built a community around themselves. As such, it is a metaphor for the long-established families of the Deep South of the United States, their encounter with changing values and norms, and the hypocrisy of racism. In 1965, The Keepers of the House was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The first William Howland did not return home to Tennessee on his way back from the War of 1812. Instead, he settled on a hill in rural Mississippi, overlooking a small river. He was later killed in an Indian raid, but since then, a descendant of William Howland, most often a male named William, lived in the house and dominated affairs in Madison City and Wade County, which sprang up around Howland's original settlement.
The fifth William Howland was the last man bearing the name to live in the house. His wife died young, leaving him with a young daughter, Abigail, and an infant son, William, who died just a year after his mother. Abigail married an English professor who abandoned her with a child, also named Abigail, when he went off to fight in World War II. When she died, William Howland was left to take care of his granddaughter Abigail. He also brought Margaret, a new African American housekeeper to the house to live with him. Throughout the county, she was known as his mistress and the mother of his other children. What no one knew, however, was that William had secretly married Margaret to ensure that the children were legitimate. Once their children came of age, William Howland and Margaret sent them north so that they could pursue lives as Whites.
The secret of the marriage came out only after the younger Abigail was married to John Tolliver, an up-and-coming politician, who was running for governor. In the turbulent racist atmosphere of the South, Tolliver aligned himself with the Klan and came out with racist statements against Blacks. This infuriated Robert Howland, the eldest son of William and Margaret, who was living in obscurity in Seattle. He released the news to the story of his origins to the press, crippling Tolliver's campaign. Tolliver, who regarded Abigail as a trophy wife, declared that their marriage was over and headed north to his family.
Both William Howland and Margaret are dead, but a mob gathered to vent its anger about the mixed marriage on Abigail and the Howland house. They kill the livestock and set fire to the barn, but Abigail succeeds in driving them away from the house with her grandfather's shotguns. At the end of the book, Abigail takes her revenge on the people of Madison City. Over the past generations, her family had come to own most of the county, making her one of the richest people in the state. Over the course of a single day, she takes revenge on the locals for betraying her grandfather by shutting down the hotel and bringing most of the local economy to ruin. Once she has done that, she places a call to Robert, with the intention of informing his new family that his mother was Black.
Race plays an important role throughout The Keepers of the House. Grau illustrates what she regards as hypocrisy among southerners, whose beliefs about race do not coincide with their outward statements or actions. This dissonance is reflected in the character, John Tolliver, who is challenged about whether he truly believes the racist rhetoric he spouts. This bitter condemnation of racist rhetoric, made at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, evoked a sharp public reaction against Grau. When the book was first published, Grau was publicly attacked by the Ku Klux Klan, and a cross was burned on her lawn.