Robert Hicks’ sequel to his highly acclaimed Civil War novel The Widow of the South (2005) is a gripping tale of one strong and courageous woman’s quest to find those responsible for the murder of her only child.
Mariah Reddick had been a slave to Carrie McGavock—the widow in Hicks’ previous novel—since their childhoods. Now it’s the summer of 1867, and Mariah, also a widow, has her own small house in Franklin, Tennessee, near the dilapidated plantation where Carrie still lives. Renowned for her skill as a midwife, Mariah is thought of as “the mother of everyone in Franklin.”
Her son, Theopolis, born into slavery but now a respected member of the Colored League and frequent speaker at political rallies, is beaten and then shot at a rally that turns into a riot just after the novel opens. What should she call herself now, Mariah wonders, for it seems there is no word for the mother “left alone by the death of her only child.” She vows to “not go forward quietly,” but to fight to discover who was involved in the death of her son.
Not surprisingly, the white witnesses are not talking, but Mariah gradually speaks to as many blacks as she can find who were there that day, or who knew someone who was there, or who overheard snippets of conversations among the whites at work or in the local bars. She’s aided in her search for justice by George Tole, a lively character, new to town, who becomes an ally and confidant. When Mariah learns an investigative tribunal is coming from Nashville to look into the riot, she is fearful they won’t do anything at all. But she’s determined to at least make her case before them.
The Orphan Mother resonates with readers on many levels—as a compelling novel documenting the violent years of Reconstruction, as a heartfelt story of the inner strengths unearthed by a mother confronted with unspeakable sorrow, and as a memorable testament to friendships between young and old, male and female, black and white. The latter offers perhaps a ray of hope in these times of racial injustice we readers are still experiencing, 150 years after the events of this gripping and timely novel.