Sunday, April 13, 2014

the Benjamin January series

A FREE MAN OF COLOR by Barbara Hambly ISBN: 0553102583, New York : Bantam Books, 1997., I have posted the information on the first book, but this is really about the entire series. This series is excellent historical fiction, and is concerned with several things. It is the story of a man, Benjamin January, born as a slave on a sugar cane plantation near New Orleans, freed when his mother was purchased by a man who made her his official mistress, grew up to become both a trained surgeon and a fine musician, and has travelled to Europe and lived for many years in France. He has come home to New Orleans, and he tries to build a life of worth and dignity in a place where that is almost impossible for a person of color, free or not. It is the story of his family, of his culture, and of the City of New Orleans, which was first Spanish, then French, and finally American. Each culture has left its indelible mark upon the society, and New Orleans is constantly in a state of transition. The culture is unique and uniquely complicated, and this book studies, in depth the customs, rules of etiquette and laws that govern and circumscribe the lives of non-white residents and citizens. These rules are so complicated that they could easily provide a 4 year course of study in a college of diplomacy, yet it is by these rules that Benjamin and all non-white people must live. This is not the fantasy New Orleans, (though there are those elements as well). It is a city of swamps and sewers; of Creole society and the Demi Monde, existing side by side; a city of balls, culture and yellow fever; a major port of trade; and a place of many cultures which all intermesh, sometimes in strange and wonderful ways. Sometimes, this series is difficult to read, because some of the things it describes are emotionally and morally horrific, but then sometimes the era, when slavery was both at its height and beginning to come under scrutiny and serious attack, were also horrific. It was difficult for me to even comprehend a world in which I could not interact with a black person as a complete equal, or where a black person could not, for example, look me directly in the eye, or had to (legally) address me as "ma'am". Yet these things were true, in that setting, as was the custom, specific to Louisiana of categorizing people of color in an incredibly arcane genetic fashion. The society was delicately balanced on layer upon layer of stratification, and, unless one found oneself in one of the top layers, reading about it is, I suspect, far preferable to living in it. But this is a very human story, too. Benjamin and his family are real people, and I found myself coming to care for them and respect them for making the most of what they had to work with. They persevered and even flourished, despite the obstacles, mostly of enshrined bigotry, and each of them is unique and complex. The author has done her research extremely well, and her writing is both informative and accessible, so that these books never feel like "history lessons". But, these books are also complex mysteries, and Ben and his friends and family must use all of their resources and intelligence to solve them, often risking their lives and freedom to do so. I thoroughly enjoyed this series, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in history, New Orleans, sociology, or very well plotted and often surprising mysteries.