A few weeks ago, I saw a review of Frank Yerby’s Floodtide (1950) on Twitter. At that point, I hadn’t read Floodtide, and this point, I still haven’t. For some reason, my brain misremembered the review and I started to read Yerby’s Fairoaks (1957), a novel centered on the life of Guy Falks. I didn’t realize my mistake until I started making a Twitter thread about my thoughts as I read through Fairoaks. There’s a lot in Fairoaks, as with any Yerby novel, that subverts numerous myths about the Lost Cause and other false constructions of reality. However, what really stood out to me was the framing of this novel where a character rises to fortune because he decides to impersonate a rich person who dies in front of him. This framing isn’t really different from a lot of novels, but Yerby turns this convention into a commentary of whiteness, and this aspect stands out to me.
Lance Falks bookends the novel. In the “Prologue,” he rides out to the family cemetery to clean up after a storm, and while there he discovers a box near the grave of Yvonne de Sompayac Falks’ grave. Prying the box open in his study, Lance discovers that it’s a lengthy letter from Ashton Falks, the man who founded Fairoaks and was Lance’s supposed grandfather. In the letter, Ashton relates that he was not, in fact, a Falks; rather, his name was Samuel Mealey. Samuel and his brother Jacob, along with Ashton Falks and his brother, were on a ship bound for the Caribbean when a storm hit as they were going to South Carolina to drop off a passenger. The Falks’ perished, and Samuel became Ashton Falks.
Samuel and Jacob were beggars and thief in London, and got kidnapped, becoming “seaman in His Majesty’s Fleet.” After the Falks’ perished trying to survive the storm, Samuel and Jacob took on the identities of Ashton and Brighton Falks. Thus began the Falks in the colonies and the United States, and thus began their ascendancy as enslavers and land owners, eventually buying and settling Fairoaks in Mississippi. When he finished reading the letter, Lance ponders if Guy, his father-in-law, knew about all of this and what he thought of it. Lance thought, “And it didn’t matter, did it, Guy, old man, that the bloody show was false? Believing it made it so.” The facts didn’t matter. No, the concocted story and its continued acceptance did.
The undercurrent of deception meanders throughout the novel. It opens with it, and the stream gets faster and faster as the narrative progresses. Samuel’s charade doesn’t come in a lot, but it serves as the foundation for what Gerald Falks does to Guy’s father Wes, denying him his claim, which is fraudulent to begin with, to Fairoaks. This latter aspect is what centers the narrative as Guy works to reclaim what he views as his rightful position as owner of Fairoaks and its wealth.
However, all of what Guy believes to be true is based on a lie from the outset, a lie that highlights the power of whiteness in society. Juxtaposed with Guy’s family is Wilcox Turner, a man who appears at the end of the novel and courts Trilby, the daughter of his friend Fitzhugh. Guy and Fitzhugh had hoped that Trilby would marry Guy’s son Hunter, but instead she becomes enamored with a visitor from up North, Wilcox Tuner. Wilcox has made money for himself in manufacturing, and he has come to Fairoaks to see Guy. It turns out that Wilcox, though, is not who he appears to be, even to himself.
Wilcox is the son of Phoebe, a formerly enslaved woman who belonged to Fitzhugh’s uncle. Phoebe could pass for white, but the drop of “Black blood” made her Black. Guy actually helps her escape to the North and sends her money to survive. Yet, none of this matters to Guy once he finds out that Wilcox is actually Phoebe’s son. Wilcox doesn’t know about the “Black blood,” and when Guy tell’s him, “your mother was a quadroon” and “you’ve got Negro blood in your veins,” Wilcox gasps, unable to speak. He tells Guy, “I’ve always hated blacks!” The reality that hits Wilcox causes him to rethink who he is, reconstituting his identity. He has had a story about himself, and Guy shatters that story. On the flip side, Guy could keep his mouth shut and let Wilcox be Wilcox, just as Guy has been Guy, but that would fly in the face of Southern mores, of course.
Due to the “Black blood,” Wilcox gets labeled, all because Guy knows the truth of his ancestry. No one though, not even Guy at this points, knows the truth of his ancestry. Wilcox’s departure allows Trilby to marry Hunter, and then Guy must find a match for his daughter Judy. He decides to have her marry her cousin Lance, a true Falks that still lives in England at Huntercrest, the family estate. The novel ends with Judy and Lance talking at Huntercrest about the marriage.
Lance asks Judy to describe Fairoaks, because he has never seen it, and Judy asks him if he is only marrying her so he can get Fairoaks. Lance jokes with her that he is, and Judy replies, “Just wait ’til you see it. And now they’ll be Falks at Fairoaks down through the years. . . .” The narrator interjects at this moment and relates, “fair she did not, could not know, that actually Lance would be the first Falks to ever set foot upon the place. Or that the whole history of her family had been one long, glorious lie. It did not matter. If a man believes enough, even lies become true. . . .” The same goes for any lie that one continually tells oneself.
Throughout Fairoaks, these lies get exposed, and Guy comes face to face with them. For example, at one point “Senhor da Coimbra, the Mongo of Pongoland” who runs a slave factory on the Pongo River, wants Guy to help him manage the operation. At this point, Guy is in his twenties, and he suspects that da Coimbra wants his help because he is white and thus smarter than da Coimbra. To this, da Coimbra replies,
No. The fact of being white is not, of itself, enough. I need a man of cleverness, decision, force–qualities rare in any race. Your average Caucasian, if I may risk offending your sensibilities, is a stupid animal. His very black and childish assumption that the accident of race makes him unquestionably superior to all other men proves that. You, however, have precisely what I need here, even if you do share this Anglo-Saxon folly. In time, I think you will outgrow it.
Even confronted throughout the novel with the reality that race is a social construct meant to exert power over others, Guy doesn’t change his opinions. At the end, he continues to buy into the lie, even though Wilcox and none around him know of his “Black blood.” The societal myths that have taken root deep within Guy’s psyche refuse to die. They remain, seeping lies into the reality, construing Guy’s mindset. This is the framing that Yerby has in Fairoaks, and this framing, which exposes the ways that we buy into lies, specifically lies about whiteness, serves to subvert what on the surface comes across as an adventure and coming of age tale of the white Guy Falks.
Again, Yerby wrote to get to the bigots, and I wonder if they picked up on this subversion in Fairoaks. I always wonder. Perhaps I’ll never know, but the fact that Yerby did this, not just in Fairoaks but in countless other novels, leads me to believe that he did, as he said, get to some of them. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.