August 12, 2008

The Bound Between Land and People

When the slaves in the U. S. were freed, they were promised forty acres of land and a mule. Not many received the land and mule during or after Reconstruction. But some did, and a bound was established between the land and the families that owned it. As in all families, disputes sometime arise over disposition of the land. Such a dispute leads to murder in Nora DeLoach’s fifth novel, Mama Stalks the Past, featuring Mama and her narrator/daughter Simone.

In the opening chapter, Nat, the angry son of a neighbor, bursts into Mama’s house, accuses her of stealing land from him, and threatens to kill her. James, Mama’s husband, with his fist drawn back, steps between them, forcing Nat to hastily leave the house.

A puzzled Mama learns from lawyer Calvin Stokes that her neighbor, Hannah Mixon, who hated Mama and just about everybody in the neighborhood, died and left property she owned to Mama instead of Nat. He also informs Mama that Hannah wanted her to find an envelope, which, both surmise, might explain why Hannah left the property to her.

Mama’s search for the envelope becomes a murder investigation when the autopsy reveals that Hannah was poisoned. James, Simone, Mama’s daughter and narrator of their detecting adventures, Sheriff Abe, and others in the small community fear for Mama’s life after Nat is murdered. Their fears seem to be realized when an attempt is made to poison Mama. Such an attempt does not stop her because she feels she owes it to Hannah to find out who murdered her and Nat and why.

Before Hannah married her fourth husband, Leroy Mixon, who is not Nat’s father, she was married to three other men. Leroy was previously married to Stella Gordon, and they had a son Reeves. Leroy inherited the land from Stella, and Hannah inherited it when he died. Reeves believes his father killed his mother to get the land, and that the land rightfully belongs to him.

Reeves, an alcoholic who had been in a hospital in Florida, is found dead in the house on the property. This adds another body to the puzzle Mama is trying to unravel. As if three bodies are not enough, one of Nat’s girl friends also is killed.

The subplot both provides a distraction to the main plot and comments on the main theme of the relation between the land and families. In addition to solving the murders, Mama has to deal with land that has been in her husband James’s family since reconstruction. Some of the cousins want to sell the land; others, including James, want to keep it. Uncle Chester, the oldest living owner of the land wants it to remain in family but refuses to do what his daughter Agatha wants: incorporate the land.

The subplot is better than main because It has humor and a better sense of the connection to past through land in the form of Uncle Chester, especially land given to the former slaves, a theme rarely explored in novels by and about Black people.

To describe the several flaws in the plot would reveal the identity of the murderer. However, the biggest flaw is DeLoach’s failure to explain how some characters come into possession of key information. Despite the flaws, readers will appreciate Mama Stalks the Past for DeLoach’s attempt to construct a plot with exciting action, putting Mama in danger.