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After suffering through the disappointing novel The Last One by Alexandra Oliva, I was excited to jump right into reading historical fiction novel Absalom's Daughters by Suzanne Feldman. Fist of all, I have to say I am in love with the cover art. It's what first drew me to this coming-of-age story about a pair of sisters who go on a road trip from Mississippi to Virginia.
Absalom's Daughters
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5  

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Cassie is a self-educated black teenager who lives with her mother and grandmother in a small Mississippi town. She has worked in the family's laundry business since she was big enough to fold a napkin. Cassie's teenage sister Judith is nothing like her; boisterous, illiterate and white, Judith dreams of fleeing from her family's poverty to make her fortunes in New York City as a singer. It's no secret around town that the girls share the same white father, William "Bill" Forrest, but in the 1950s the half-sisters' kinship was not discussed publicly and their association with each other was discouraged. After Bill abandons his wife, Judith's mother, to chase after a wealthy woman, Judith receives a letter from a distant relative about an inheritance from the Forrest estate in Virginia. Judith realizes this is her big chance to escape her small town and convinces Cassie to join her on the trip to Virginia so they can make their claims on the inheritance money and confront their father, who is already in Virginia looking to cash in.

Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. I found the characters engaging and the vivid, expertly written scenes effortlessly transport the reader through time to the 1950s. Each town had a character all its own and I liked seeing how each community responded to the arrival of this mismatched pair of vagabonds. While the book didn't explore racial issues of the time with any sort of depth, it did touch on some key aspects. Colorism, racism and social norms were prominent themes throughout. To this point, the n-word was used regularly in the novel but not in a gratuitous manner. In my opinion, the n-word blended seamlessly into the landscape of the historical context, fitting in appropriately with the rest of the curse words, uneducated mispronunciations, and the misspellings representative of southern accents, all of which lend an air of authenticity to the novel's setting and characters.

One of the things that did bother me was how passively Cassie is portrayed for most of the novel; the story is told from her perspective but halfway through I felt I hardly knew her. While it's clear early on that Judith is a good singer, likes to dance (and drink and hang out with boys), is overly confident to hide her insecurities and is a serial liar, Cassie does not appear to have any hobbies, or express any particular preferences and very few opinions. On the one hand, Cassie is a quiet, reserved person who doesn't appear to talk much at all but on the other hand, she is the lens through which we are immersed into this fictional world and a little bit of introspection via internal dialog would have helped the character not feel so flat for the first half to two-thirds of the book. It seems impossible to me that Cassie doesn't have strong feelings about finally learning who her father was, being ignored by him in public, having to play the role of her half-sister's maid on occasion, being called the n-word, being questioned suspiciously by white people, etc. but we never get to explore her inner feelings that arise from those circumstances. While we know that Cassie resents being put in those situations and feels genuinely fearful at times, she doesn't outright express anger, frustration, confusion or any type of emotional reflection. It's not until the story line takes a weird, magical twist about two-thirds in that we finally get to a deeper look into Cassie's inner thoughts. I just feel they were worth some black ink early on in the story as well.

To that end, it seemed like the novel wasn't exactly sure what it wanted to be. Billed as a 1950s coming-of-age novel, the story followed this trajectory pretty well in the beginning. Then a supernatural event detours the plot and finally the story wraps up with an unresolved family mystery. That being said, it was still a nice read. It's an immersive story that explores two captivating characters defining personal identity and understanding family connections. I liked how Cassie and Judith brought out different qualities in each other and grew individually as their relationship developed. I don't have a sister so I think I was drawn to this book particularly because it explored an interesting sister relationship, and it did so with great care. I completely enjoyed following Cassie and Judith on their journey. I recommend Absalom's Daughters, especially if you're looking for a quick, heartwarming read. I think teenage readers in particular would enjoy this coming-of-age, historical fiction novel.