Wake of the Wind (Cooper)

The Wake of the Wind 
J. California Cooper, 1998
Knopf Doubleday

384 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385487054

A dramatic and thought-provoking novel of one family's triumph in the face of the hardships and challenges of the post-Civil War South.

The Wake of the Wind, J. California Cooper's third novel, is her most penetrating look yet at the challenges that generations of African Americans have had to overcome in order to carve out a home for themselves and their families. Set in Texas in the waning years of the Civil War, the novel tells the dramatic story of a remarkable heroine, Lifee, and her husband, Mor.

When Emancipation finally comes to Texas, Mor, Lifee, and the extended family they create from other slaves who are also looking for a home and a future, set out in search of a piece of land they can call their own. In the face of constant threats, they manage not only to survive but to succeed—their crops grow, their children thrive, they educate themselves and others. Lifee and Mor pass their intelligence, determination, and talents along to their children, the next generation to surge forward.

At once tragic and triumphant, this is an epic story that captures with extraordinary authenticity the most important struggle of the last hundred years. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
J. California Cooper is the author of four novels, including, most recently, Some People, Some Other Place, and six collections of stories. She was honored as Black Playwright of the Year, and has received the American Book Award, the James Baldwin Writing Award, and the Literary Lion Award from the American Library Association. She lives in Portland, Oregon (From the publisher.)

J. California Cooper first found acclaim as a playwright. The author of seventeen plays, she was named Black Playwright of the Year in 1978.

It was through her work in the theater that she caught the attention of acclaimed poet and novelist Alice Walker. Encouraged by Walker to turn her popular storytelling skills to fiction, Cooper wrote her first collection of short stories, A Piece of Mine, in 1984. Called "rich in wisdom and insight" and "a book that's worth reading," A Piece of Mine introduced Cooper's trademark style: her intimate and energetic narration, sympathetic yet sometimes troubled characters, and the profound moral messages that underlie seemingly simple stories.

Two more story collections followed on the heels of A Piece of Mine. In 1986 came Homemade Love, winner of an American Book Award, and, in 1987, Some Soul to Keep. (Author bio from the African American Literature Book Club.)

Book Reviews
Cooper's disappointing third novel (after Family) frustrates readers with a good premise poorly executed. Mordecai and Lifee meet as slaves on a plantation in post-Civil War Texas. Forced to marry by their master before they even know each other, they fall in love just as emancipation is declared, and head east with several other newly freed companions to look for a safe place to live. Cooper conveys the mixture of hope, fear and confusion as hungry and footsore former slaves move across the country. Mor and Lifee find work at a ruined plantation in Georgia and begin a family; and in time, the owner secretly sells her property to them. The tightly knit clan of former slaves prospers, but when lynchings in the area become frequent, they are forced to leave. Eventually they settle on an abandoned farm, where they survive economic depression and other troubles. When tragedy ensues, the next generation must assume responsibility for preserving the family. Though Cooper's research about the troubled historical era provides good details, her characters are mainly two-dimensional stereotypes. The blacks are good, with pure hearts; the whites (with one exception) are duplicitous. Moreover, the prose is wooden and preachy, lacking grace or nuance. This earnest saga of freed slaves aspiring to new lives in the Reconstruction South is commendable in intent but pedestrian in execution.
Publishers Weekly

Cooper has written her third novel and another wonderfully rich tale. Two good friends in Africa, Kola and Suwaibu, are taken from Africa and brought to America as slaves. The story of their great-great-great-grandchildren, Mordecai (Mor) and Lifee, reunites these friends' families through marriage. Mor and Lifee's life together is chronicled through their marriage, freedom from slavery, the birth of their children and grand-children, and their deaths. Cooper has once again written a compelling story, reminiscent of The Children of Segu (1989) by Maryse Conde. All her fans will love this book. Lillian Lewis

A lyrical, century-spanning family saga on the lives of several African-American families. Cooper (Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime, 1995, etc.) begins with a recitation of the brief, hard existence of two young men, Kola and Suwaibu, best friends who, in the 1760s, are captured by slavers and transported to America. Both father children "in this new world of pain," sending some essence of themselves "rushing, striving, pulsing on toward some future." A century later, Mordecai (a Suwaibu descendant) and Lifee (a Kola descendant) meet on a Southern plantation in the last days of the Civil War. Lifee, newly arrived, is slated to become the masterþs mistress. Beautiful and educated, she is driven by a fierce determination to be free. Mordecai, a skilled farmer and deeply humane, shares her desire for freedom. When the war ends, the two set out to look for a place of their own, making an epic trek across the devastated South before finding land. Cooper's narrative comes into its own with her portrait of the turbulent years following the war, as freed slaves filled the South's roads looking for lost family members and new lives. Her depiction of the ways in which Mordecai and Lifee outwit the violent whites they encounter is vivid, detailed, and stirring. Much of the story concerns the pair's almost continual battle to keep their home and secure an education for their children in the face of violent white opposition. Even if, as Lifee observes at the end of her life in 1895, the world is "still as hard on Negroes" as it can be, she and Mordecai and their equally resilient children have nonetheless managed to defy the odds, and the unpredictable "winds of life," to create a place for themselves in the world. A moving story that combines period detail, terse, flavorful language, and a swift plot to create a portrait of a redoubtable family over time.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. Why does Cooper begin The Wake of the Wind with the prologue about Africa and the descriptions of Suwaibu and Kola's capture by slave traders and their years in slavery? Do they do more than serve as historical background for the story of Lifee and Mor? Are there parallels between the journeys Suwaibu and Kola make and Lifee and Mor's journey across the American South after the Civil War?

2. After Lifee gains her freedom, she tells her former mistress, "Miz Morella, white folks ain't been taking care of us. We have been taking care of white folks. Better ask what you all will do when we are gone and slavery is no more" [p. 51]. How does the novel bring to light the far-reaching repercussions of the dismantling of the slave system? How does the white population limit the freedom of African Americans even after the law has emancipated them? Which segment of white society is most responsible for the rise of racial violence after the war and why? Do Cooper's explanations of the sources of racism remain valid today?

3. What values guide Mor and Lifee as they build a life for themselves and their children? How do they impart these values not only through words but also through their actions? Do you think the portrait Cooper paints is idealized? Are her descriptions of white America (for example, Mor's conversation with his children [pp. 226-228] and Able's discussion of his experiences at college [p. 334]) accurate?

4. What do Cooper's novels share with other books, both fiction and nonfiction, that you have read about the Civil War period? Do her descriptions of the relationships between African Americans and whites before and immediately followingthe war differ from your previous impressions or beliefs? In what ways does Cooper challenge the traditional depiction of the boundaries between slave and master, black and white? Which characters or relationships do you find particularly surprising? Are the white characters as fully developed as the African Americans are?

5. Cooper touches on a wide range of social, economic, and political issues in her writing, including the historical divisions between races and classes; interracial relationships; the significance of complexion in society in general and within the African American community specifically; and the importance of education. What techniques does she use to incorporate these subjects without disrupting the flow of the stories? In what ways can fiction be more effective than nonfiction in revealing the forces that shape our world?

6. In describing Cooper's writing, Alice Walker said, "Her style is deceptively simple and direct and the vale of tears in which her characters reside is never so deep that a rich chuckle at a foolish person's foolishness cannot be heard." How do these traits mirror classic forms of storytelling, from myths and Biblical parables to the folk stories passed down through oral traditions? Why do you think Cooper may have chosen to use these timeless techniques to tell her stories?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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