From a shooting in Burbank, California, to a road trip straight into Hurricane Katrina, Fantine Antoine and her father race against time to save her godson, Victor, although the bullet wedged in his arm less life-threatening than the plans of his friends, Jazen and Alphonse as the other two young men flee the consequences of their deadly LA encounter. Still aching from the loss of a mother taken by the streets, Victor has a poet’s heart and a black man’s despair, seduced by the life Fantine has created for herself, battered by an insensitive world with no place for him. Unmarried, childless, successful writer Fantine (FX Antoine) has traveled the globe, her heart intricately bound with the ties of blood and Victor’s uncertain future: “There were only two kinds of people, those who stayed home and those who left.”
The exotic locales of her travels pale as Fantine is hurled backward in time, speeding toward the past: the history of slavery and brutality, of strong women and a fearless father, the terror of a white man who helps himself to innocent girls with brown skin and soft black hair. Like a poison, this man - and others like him - has infected family stories and sent five girls across the country from Louisiana to California, the one remaining hiding in the armoire at the sound of tires on gravel outside her home.
Words have become Fantine’s weapon, her haven as she struggles desperately to reach Victor with the secrets only she can tell him. Straight’s storytelling is magical, laced with the blood of slaves and myth. As a professor says to Fantine, “You made me fall in love.” So it is with this novel, this author, who inhabits her characters so thoroughly that their pain is as tangible as their love for one another and the twisted paths of their lives.
Sisters of the heart speak boldly. Fantine’s childhood companions share a girlhood and suffer the loss of one another - especially Victor’s mother, Glorette, her dead body tossed in a shopping cart in an alley. Brothers, fathers are hard men, honed by experience in a country that measures worth by color, worried for young men who posture like gangstas and view the world behind tinted windows, seduced by the flash of easy money. One moment of senseless bravado by Victor, Jazen and Alphonse leaves a stranger dead on the streets of LA.
The boys head for Louisiana, followed by Fantine and Enrique Antoine, as everyone spins into a vortex more deadly than Katrina in a clash of time and place: decades are stripped away, and ancestors call from their graves. But more powerful than violence is love anchored in shared tribulation, the comfort of girls sitting shoulder to shoulder whispering about boys, babies embraced by aunties, godmothers, the dependence upon blood for a safe place.
Language is the bridge between characters in this powerful story, a rich culture born of tragedy, fed by joy and beautifully captured by a writer of extraordinary vision.
Anyone who remains unscathed by this chilling tale has lost the capacity for empathy. Seldom are readers given the luxury of true intimacy and freedom from cultural boundaries, the experience Straight offers in heartfelt novels that speak to the best in our natures regardless of the ugly detours of senseless brutality. Katrina strikes, but there is no force of nature stronger than these people, a bloody history illuminated by courage, one candle, one room at a time.