by Gerald Duff
Moon City Press
Blue Sabine is a lyrical, unsentimental interior portrait of the frustrations and trials of the Holt family, told by the family’s matriarch and five generations of her descendants. The novel, Duff’s seventh, opens in 1867, when the Holts settle in the Sabine River valley of east Texas. Each of the book’s six segments is set twenty to thirty years after the previous one, the last in 2003. These segments are composed of first-person vignettes that allow each character to expound on the judgments they have passed—on the world, on themselves, and most of all on their family members. Narrators range in age from the early teens to the bedridden elderly. Characters radically evolve, appearing as young childless women in one segment and mothers in the next, with the experiences that have occurred in the interim informing their voices and recollections.
The Holts are a practical brood of Texans—stubborn, philosophical, and big-hearted. Their biases are rarely self-acknowledged, though the rest of the narrators in their generation pick them apart down to the bones. The cast is largely female, with only two male speakers. When the voices of the Holt men join the story, they do so in an unobtrusive manner. Like the river, the novel flows insistently onward. Central to the first half are the sisters Abigail and Maude, and the evolution of their relationship from frustration to acceptance and tolerance. A similar maturation occurs between Nola Mae and Dicia, cousins who, along with their children, narrate the second half of the novel. The relationships between the characters grow more complex as the novel acquires its own past, causing the reader to form separate judgments about the characters that lie somewhere beyond the information provided by the voices in the text.
One of the reasons the novel’s structure functions so well is the unity Duff is able to establish among his distinct narrators. Matriarch Carolina Cameron Holt with her wonderful wild mind opens the novel: “When land is played out and a river is crossed and people moved away from and left behind, the thing is finished and the sun is low in the sky and my people journey toward it” (2). Her elevated tone and somewhat detached perspective dominate the text; at times one feels as if she has narrated the whole story. The characters after her use the same words, think in the same tone. This could become monotonous, but Duff is able to distinguish each character through biases and opinions that conflict with those of other speakers. The voices are distinct yet harmonious, each rich with the traditions of thought and dissatisfaction that run deep in the minds of the Holts. Duff is successful in creating human, relatable characters; a reader may well pause for self-examination during some of the narrators’ more reflective moments. This book makes readers feel keenly the weight of their own past and consider the weight carried by those they love.
Throughout there is the presence of the Sabine River, where the novel both opens and closes. Carolina Cameron Holt and her husband Amos migrate from Louisiana to Texas, and must cross the river to do so. On the banks of the Sabine they experience a devastating loss, one that causes Carolina to fear the sound of the river ever after. The final scene also takes place on those banks, where the remaining Holts have gathered for a reunion and a sort of metanarrative awareness is reached when Clement, one of the story’s few male narrators, points out that for anything to be “interesting or mean anything, you’ve got to break it into segments and pretend they stand alone and complete in themselves” (312). Clement compares the journey of his family through time, and their evolution, to the river’s journey to the sea. This narrative device felt a little heavy-handed; though the characters have been telling me what they think of each other, I am less certain that I want them telling me what connections to make within the narrative.
The novel ends with a return to the voice of Carolina Cameron Holt, speaking about the river: “Come, the river sings, come, let loose of all that holds and keeps you” (317). Carolina’s fear of the water is inherent in the river’s irresistible nature. Like time itself, the water must flow, and sweep human lives along with it.