0253166071Oxherding Tale by Charles Johnson. Bloomington. 1982. Indiana University Press. 176 pages. Jacket drawing by Sharon Sklar. 0253166071. 


A complex novel of race, slavery, history, and philosophy.





   Andrew Hawkins' birth is the result of a huge misunderstanding. His story begins on an evening in 1837. Jonathan Polkinghorne, master of the Cripplegate plantation, and his dutiful butler, George Hawkins, drink a bit too much and decide they can't go home to their own wives--so they go home to each others'. Disaster ensues. Their wives never quite recover, George is banished to the fields, and nine months later Anna Polkinghorne gives birth to the fated narrator of OXHERDING TALE. As a youth, Andrew is caught in the perpetual battle of the sexes; as he matures, he becomes a social chameleon, who tastes life fully in both the white and the black worlds, never truly belonging to either. Charles Johnson's comic philosophical novel takes the form of a picaresque, first-person narrative. It is the story of Andrew's desperate flight from slavery, but in OXHERDING TALE bondage is spiritual as well as physical, sexual as well as racial. Andrew's adventures cover not only the landscape of the antebellum South--the horrors of the 'peculiar institution,' black suicide, and death in the mines--but also timeless questions of identity and the nature of the self. The novel's title refers to the 'Ten Oxherding Pictures' of the twelfth-century Zen artist Kuo-an Shih-yuan, which depict the progress of a young herdsman searching for his wayward ox Accordingly, the narrative skillfully interfaces Eastern philosophical traditions with the drama of black American slavery. On his way to a liberation that should surprise the reader, Andrew encounters a vivid cast of characters. There is Flo Hat-field, an aging sensualist and 'genius of love,' who satisfies her gargantuan appetites on a diet of sweets and young male slaves; Reb, the Coffinmaker, a direct pipeline to African mysteries, who reluctantly flees north with Andrew; and Horace Bannon, the ominous Soulcatcher, a bounty-hunter who does not so much catch runaways as absorb them into himself, taking on their individual quirks and idiosyncrasies. A young Karl Marx also appears, paying a funny, yet zanily plausible visit to America to meet Ezekiel Sykes-Withers, Andrew's tragic and ascetic tutor. There is Minty, a slave girl of remarkable strength, as well as the misanthropic Dr. Undercliff and his sharp-tongued daughter, Peggy, with whom Andrew achieves a rare and unexpected serenity. Brilliantly realized minor characters complete the portrait of a world that, as the narrator says, 'is ruin now, mere parable. ' Like John Fowles in The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Barth in The Sotweed Factor, and E. L. Doctorow in Ragtime, Charles Johnson has created a narrative voice that bridges present-day and past sensibilities. The form of OXHERDING TALE--at once a celebration and an exploration of a traditional genre--underscores its meaning: a fiction that fully treats slavery and liberation on every level of experience.

Johnson CharlesCHARLES JOHNSON'S first novel, FAITH AND THE GOOD THING, was called by the Washington Post a book 'of rare eloquence and originality, a fable that entertains and informs. ' Mr. Johnson is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Washington, fiction editor of the Seattle Review, author of the PBS Visions drama 'Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree,' and recently a producer-writer for the PBS series Up and Coming. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Joan, and their two children, Malik and Elizabeth.


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