WHEN STARS ALIGN, by Carole Kosoff, Author House, 412 pp., $17.95.
In an excerpt from Carole Kosoff’s new book, When Stars Align, we get to read about a place and time where mixed-race relationships are both illegal and unacceptable. The time is a crucial period in American history–the Civil War and the years of Reconstruction following it–and the characters are Thaddeus and Amy, who share a forbidden love that can get them both killed. For he is a mulatto ex-slave, and she is white. In the novel, whenever Amy asks if she and Thaddeus will ever be together, his answer is “When stars align.”
The place is Louisiana, where Moss Grove, a large Mississippi River cotton plantation, has thrived from the use of slave labor while its owners lived lives of comfort and privilege. Thaddeus, conceived from the rape of a young field slave by the heir to the plantation, is raised as a Moss Grove house servant. His continued presence remains a thorn in the side of the man who sired him.
Deepening divisiveness between North and South launches the Civil War and changes Moss Grove in ways no one could have anticipated. With the war swirling, we see the battles and carnage through Thaddeus’ eyes.
After the Civil War ends, the period of Reconstruction begins, and there is a glimmer of hope for the former slaves: black legislators are elected and help to pass new laws. With the help of Union soldiers, schools are established to educate those who were formerly prohibited from learning to read. Medical clinics are opened; businesses are established. Hope flourishes. Thaddeus returns to Moss Grove and to Amy, hoping to share their newly won freedoms. Perhaps the stars will now finally align for the young lovers…
In 1876, however, in the most contested election in American history, the ex-Confederate states barter the selection of President Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for removal of all Union troops from their soil. Within a decade, hopes are dashed as Jim Crow laws are passed, the Ku Klux Klan launches new violence, and black progress is crushed.
When Stars Align Book Excerpt
PrologueThe setting sun drifted across the rutted dirt road grooved from repeated attacks of rain, hooves and wagon wheels. Small huts lined one side erratically, grey plumes of smoke stretching skyward from them, anxious to leave the noxious odors and poverty that gave birth to their temporal existence. The main house, the Master’s home, Moss Grove, was another hundred yards away, concealing itself from the squalor that was so necessary for it to function.
Rose’s body ached as the small buggy lurched first one way, then another, seeking purchase from the mud and slurry that slowed its journey. Her strength still wasn’t up to the six hour trip so soon after giving birth. She nestled the unfamiliar tiny breathing mass in her arms…a baby boy, blue-eyed with soft downy mocha skin. She hadn’t stopped staring at him since she gave birth four days ago. Born from so much pain and shame it was almost as if God was apologizing for the anguish he’d bestowed on her. She wanted to hate that part of the child she recognized in the father, the long fingers, the arched strong eyebrows, but most of all those electric blue eyes that stared at her in an unnerving fashion from the first moment they opened and looked into her eyes. She would never forget being thrown onto the ground, her legs being pushed apart and staring into the icy blue eyes of Henry Rogers. Only a few years older than her, he was strong and arrogant, as he forced himself into her. He was also white. She tried to scream but he slapped her. Seconds later he let out a gasp, stood and smiled as he climbed back onto his horse. He left without a glance or a word while she lay there, crying at the pain and frightened by the blood and dirt spotting her thin cotton dress.
Rose had been away from Moss Grove for more than a month. Massa’ Rogers, Moss Grove’s patriarch, had ordered that she be sent away to have this child that was such an embarrassment. She would have preferred to stay in her small cabin in Moss Grove’s slave quarters. She’d be with people she knew but no one asked nor cared about her preferences. She had been put into a wagon and taken to the home of Massa’ Rogers’s kin near Baton Rouge to bear him a nigger grandchild, for Lord’s sake. The servants there had treated her kindly. They set her in a room of her own in the back of the house. It was clean and dry and even had a real glass window. It was more than she’d had her entire life and when it was time for the baby to come out they fussed over her as if she were their own kin.
As the small buggy and its cargo rode closer to the house it pulled to a stop. Two women waited at the side of the path. Rose recognized the slightly taller one. It was Sarah, Moss Grove’s house Mammy. The other, a slave woman that Rose had seen but never met, was a little shorter, a little more bent, stood next to her, head and shoulders cloaked in a shabby black wool shawl. Both women looked grim as their sad eyes tracked the buggy’s slow approach. The last embers of the day were the only light illuminating the scene.
“Rose! How you feelin’?” Sarah asked gently, moving closer.
“I be fine, I guess. I’m not sure what to do with this little package the Lord Jesus brung me.”
“Ain’t no need to worry, youngster. Hand him to me,” Sarah said, reaching her arms up.
“I don’t wanna let go of him. He a part of me. He look at me and he knows I is his mama.” Rose’s voice began to quake as words and tears mingled in her throat.
“Rose, just give me the baby. You too young to even produce milk for him. He need a strong teat and someone who know how to care for a new born.”
“I learn, Miss Sarah. I learn quick. You know ‘ah is bright.”
“You’ll have more. Big, strong ‘uns. When you’re older and you’ll have the baby’s daddy to help.”
“But I carried this un’. This ‘un is mine….mine,” Rose pleaded.
“Rose, go back to your cabin and forget this baby. Massa’ Jedidiah has other plans for him.”
Sarah nodded to the driver. The man stood and with a gentle firmness he took the baby from Rose’s grasp and passed him to Sarah. He hated being involved in these women’s troubles. All that cryin’. The infant began to wail at the events he shared but would never comprehend. Rose’s body shook, every nerve electric, unable to catch her breath. Her new son was being taken from her. She thought she might die giving birth and now she was almost sorry that she hadn’t.
Sarah stared back at the young black slave girl. She understood what Rose had gone through to bear this child but she had her instructions. She passed the baby to the woman who watched silently and would act as a mid-wife and surrogate mother and whose breasts would nourish the infant.
The wagon turned and headed back toward the slave’s quarters. Rose watched the two women trudge slowly away from her toward the house, holding her son against the evening’s chill and muffling the cries that grew more muted each step away from her.
A horned owl left its perch, disturbed by the noise below. As it soared over the trees seeking an evening meal, its mournful sounds blended into a plaintive duet with the infant’s sobs.
Soon the wagon stopped and the driver ordered Rose to get down. The young girl was inert, unable to move.
“Get’cha self down, ah has to get up early and head back to Baton Rouge,” the driver said.
The young girl obeyed as if in a trance and squatted on the ground where she landed. Her body hung motionless in the black moonless night as her soul screamed with the maternal hunger of eons. She had lost her first born child.
Her latest book is When Stars Align.