It’s complicated—that’s a good summary of Regina Porter’s sensitive journey through a network of family relationships and friendships in her debut novel, The Travelers. Moving from rural Georgia in the 1960s to Manhattan at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, with side trips to the Vietnam War and Germany both before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the novel is a subtle exploration of issues of race and gender in the past half century of American life.
At the heart of this story are two African American women, Agnes Miller Christie and Eloise Delaney. Their story begins as they grow up in Georgia in the early 1960s. After a fire destroys her home, Eloise moves in with her Catholic school classmate Agnes, whose life is later scarred by an act of racial violence. Their friendship turns romantic, but when Agnes ends it, Eloise embarks on what will turn out to be a lifelong quest to find another relationship as deep or satisfying.
Eloise’s own evolution is spurred by her fascination with the real-life story of Bessie Coleman, who became the first African American woman to obtain a pilot’s license in 1921. Coleman’s fierce independence and determination inspire Eloise, as she becomes an intelligence analyst in Vietnam and eventually settles in Germany in the 1970s, learning to fly along the way.
Agnes’ marriage to Eddie Christie, a Vietnam veteran and Shakespeare-quoting janitor in the Bronx who develops a passionate attachment to Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, produces a daughter, Claudia, herself a Shakespeare scholar, whose marriage to Rufus Vincent, a fellow academic, unites the Christie family with the Irish-American Vincents. Porter, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, deploys a light touch in exposing the personal and cultural tensions that surface as two families—one black, the other white—merge.
The Travelers is at times a challenging reading experience, owing to its chorus of narrative voices, its ambitiously large cast of characters and its decidedly episodic structure. Meaningful connections emerge—sometimes slowly, other times unexpectedly—but rather than straining to find them, it’s more pleasurable to yield to Porter’s ample storytelling talent and simply enjoy the ride.