At this moment, I am almost exactly halfway through Frank Yerby’s oeuvre. During his career, he published thirty-three novels, and at the time of this writing, I am reading my seventeenth, Devilseed (1984). I’ve been reading Yerby for about five years now, working, in my spare time, to complete his works. I have twenty-four of his novels on my shelf, so I still need to get seven more. Yerby began as an enigmatic figure for me, someone who was known yet not known. He didn’t fit neatly into the mold of the Black literary canon that arose in the academy in the late 1960s, but his work spoke directly to that moment, historical moments, and future moments. Today, I want to take a moment and share with you my five favorite Yerby novels, in no particular order.
Speak Now (1969)
If you have read my blog for a while, or if you have read Rediscovering Frank Yerby, you know that Speak Now was the first Yerby novel that I actually read. I probably had three to four Yerby novels on my shelf at that point, but I didn’t read them until I finished Speak Now. Plain and simple, what prompted me to read the novel, and dive into Yerby, was the cover which depicted Harry Forbes and Kathy Nichols, front and center, standing back to back as the 1968 student protests erupt behind them in a swath of red. This cover looked different than all of the Yerby covers I had seen before. It was contemporary. It reminded me of John A. Williams, Chester Himes, or others.
The novel itself, of course, is overtly political, and that fact alone primed me to go back and read Yerby for his subversion. Most critics knocked Yerby for not being political, but he was. Speak Now highlights that. There are multiple aspects of the novel that demand attention from the student protests, the postcolonial discussions, and more. However, at its core, the novel focuses on Harry, a Black man from Georgia, and Kathy, a white woman from South Carolina, who meet in Paris and start a relationship. It’s a novel that examines the racial baggage that carry with them, wherever they go, and the ways that they disentangle that baggage, leading to a meaningful relationship. The disentangling of racial stereotypes and assumptions is at the core of Yerby’s work, no matter when or where the novel takes place.
The Foxes of Harrow (1946)
The Foxes of Harrow is Yerby’s first novel. It appeared in 1946, and immediately, it sold well, leading Twentieth Century Fox to buy the film rights. He was the first Black author to option the film rights for a work. If I hadn’t read Speak Now before picking up Foxes, I would probably be like KaToya Ellis Fleming who said, “While I was reading the book, I had to fish it out of the trash twice.” On the surface, Foxes focuses on the rise of Stephen Fox, “a Dublin guttersnipe” as he calls himself, who comes to Louisiana in the early 1800s and amasses a fortune through the institution of slavery and loses it during the Civil War and its aftermath. The novel sees Fox grow and change his views on slavery; it sees his relationships; and it shows the transmission of racist thought that occurs between parent, culture, and child through the depiction of his son Etienne.
At its core, though, Foxes focuses on the enslaved: Tante Caleen, Achille, La Belle Sauvage, Inch, Suzette, and more. It focuses on the ways that they built Harrow, not Fox. It focuses on the ways that they sustained Harrow, not Fox. It focuses on the ways that they worked to move Louisiana forward after the war, not Fox. These characters are the center of Foxes, and if I had not read Speak Now before Foxes, I would not have noticed these aspects. I would have overlooked them amidst the window dressing of the moonlight and magnolia story of Fox’s loves, his building of wealth, and its ultimate crumbling. I would not see Foxes as a response to Gone with the Wind or Faulkner. I would have see it as a mere extension of the same tired Lost Cause tropes and motifs. However, it is much more than that. It subverts these things in every way.
The Treasure of Pleasant Valley (1955)
The Treasure of Pleasant Valley is, for all intents and purposes, a frontier novel, bordering on a western even though it takes place during the California gold rush in 1849-50. I’ve read this novel a couple of times, and it has to be, for various reasons, my favorite. It’s short, about half the length of Yerby’s other works, and it breaks down, as Yerby does elsewhere, the social constructions of race by removing it from a black/white binary by moving the setting from the South to the West.
When I reread this novel a few months ago, what stuck out to me was what appeared to be semi-autobiographical moments contained between the covers. Little exists on Yerby’s personal life, but we do know he expatriated in 1952 and moved to Madrid, Spain, in 1955. Bruce Harkness’ story is a story of expatriation from the South to the West, a story akin to Ernest Gaines’ move in the same direction. The difference, however, is that Harkness is white. He takes the inheritance that he gets from his father and leaves South Carolina, setting out to make a new life of refuge in California. He tells Hailey, a man he meets on the voyage, “This slavery question is a touchy business. . . . When you get right down to it, a case could be made for the idea that it’s us who’re enslaved.” Yerby left due to racial discrimination. Harkness leaves because he sees the effects that that discrimination and violence has on his own psyche. There are other semi-autobiographical ways to read Harkness journey, but the key is that racism and violence, for different reasons, cause both Yerby and Harkness to leave their home for new frontiers.
In the next post, I will finish up by looking at the last two novels. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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