Leah's Reviews > The House Behind the Cedars

The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chesnutt
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's review
Feb 01, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: oh-mah-stars

"Time touches all things with destroying hand; and if he seem now and then to bestow the bloom of youth, the sap of spring, it is but a brief mockery, to be surely and swiftly followed by the wrinkles of old age, the dry leaves and bare branches of winter. And yet there are places where Time seems to linger lovingly long after youth has departed, and to which he seems loath to bring the evil day. Who has not known some even-tempered old man or woman who seemed to have drunk of the fountain of youth? Who has not seen somewhere an old town that, having long since ceased to grow, yet held its own without perceptible decline?" (3)

Such an opening should suggest to anyone that this is a novel of often beautiful prose. The storyline, however, is one that was - racial factors aside - also a little too classic, maybe on purpose. A kind of girl meets boy with some Romeo and Juliet kinds of missed opportunities and coincidences along the way. The suspense that this brought to me was the typical kind I get from love stories where things don't go perfectly - you know the kind, where you have to wrench your eyes away, where you don't want to keep on reading because of a sense of foreboding and also a bit of frustration at the expectation of cliche, but also where you HAVE to keep on reading just to make yourself feel better...? Yeah, that. It felt weird, maybe even made me a little guilty, to have such inspired (uninspired) feelings from such an important novel on race relations. But part of this classical storyline, I feel, is deliberate. Chesnutt was a classically read author and his romantic notions in some ways (as seen, for example, in his multiple descriptions of the protagonist Rena as being like a Greek statuette) are evocative of this.

As far as the social issues presented in this novel, lots of interesting and in some cases unexpected insights are allowed to settle in the minds of these characters. As expected, the world Chesnutt evokes is far from uncomplicated, though there is a kind of blind dogged devotion presented in the characters of Blanche and Frank that smacks slightly of caricature. On the other end, there is John, whose dialogue seems at times a little too stiff and formal.

Still there is a lot to absorb in this book that make it worth the read. When I think about what makes some books 'classic' and others not, I wonder what would have happened if books written by non-white authors were ever made to 'pass' into the canon - this book, in style, content, and presentation, would have easily fit in among lots of the 19th century American authors that most readers would consider a part of that tradition and, in its eye-opening clarity and willingness to discuss difficult matters of race, would have in some cases surpassed it.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Brad (new)

Brad Love your little interjection of MLA. You're such a lit geek. I think I am in love. <3

Leah Thank ya darlin. I think life in general (and politics in particular) would look very different if only a style and reference manual could be forced upon it.

Agent Smith Love that u started w/that quote. Ever since I read this book that saying has been rooted in my mind.

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