By: Sue McDougald Watson
Reviewed by: Liz Reed
There’s an inherent problem in starting a new book at bedtime: If it’s a good read, 3:00 a.m. comes quickly regardless the hour set for the next day’s beginning. Such was the case with Jane Ellen’s Path. From the first chapter, author Sue McDougald Watson “mourned the lack of control that seemed the birthright of all females.” McDougald’s first novel follows Jane Ellen from pre-school through retirement and presents a picture of Alabama women of the 1950s woven with the familiar threads of racism, classism, misogyny, and fear.
Written in straightforward style, Jane Ellen’s Path is divided into three sections: the compelling story of an innocent friendship between two little girls unaware of the harsh realities of being different; the choices they make as young adults; and the impact their choices have on their lives as mature women. The author deftly reveals much of the dark history of racism through the stories of the two main characters, leaving the reader in awe over the complexity of Southern racism and the enduring qualities of true friendship.
The story begins as Jane Ellen and Lynn meet. Jane Ellen is the granddaughter of Lynn’s family maid. As pre-schoolers, they spend their days together playing as equals, unaware of the latent impact of their different social positions. Following Alabama tradition, they are separated when school starts as Lynn attends the white elementary school in the community and Jane Ellen enrolls in the separate-but-not-equal one-room school house miles away from home. Testament to the strength of true friendship, they maintain close ties through high school and college. Their relationship holds steady until family financial crisis and 1950s iron-caste Southern customs force Lynn to marry a man brimming with bigotry and hate. Like many young black people in the 1960s and 1970s, Jane Ellen moves north after college and begins a lonely life in New York City, a far cry, literally and figuratively, from her rural Alabama roots. Lynn retreats into her role as a young Southern wife and homemaker. By the end of the book’s first section, the fabric of their friendship is frayed.
The second part of the book is disappointingly thin compared to the first and last sections. The story follows Jane Ellen’s life of loneliness, love, and tragedy from early adulthood to retirement; Lynn’s early adulthood through mid-life is left unexplored. Both women are caught in the restrictive web of a woman’s place in social and career choices. Freedom of choice has not yet arrived for Blacks or women. Both characters bring meaning to the word “endure.”
In the final section, Jane Ellen’s path leads her back to Alabama to spend her retirement years back home with family and surroundings she loves most. Jane Ellen and Lynn reconnect through a surprising and unexpected series of events, horrifying yet completely believable, Biblical in their legacy (Numbers 14:18). McDougald has woven together elements of thousands of familiar tales in a heart-warming story of love, loss, and feminine endurance. March 2009
Liz Reed, retired from the marketing research field, spends her days pursuing creative endeavors of art, crafts, and travel, and helping in her husband’s bookstore, Reed Books.