In Tracey Rose Peyton’s engaging, arresting debut, six enslaved women essential to keeping a struggling Texas plantation from imminent collapse are engaged in a constant daily battle over bodily autonomy with the people who depend on them to live.
Harlow and Lizzie are the bitter, resentful, and willful masters of an operation that needs more slaves than they can afford to buy. The only solution is to breed more, so that Harlow can have more “portly children” who will grow into the able hands he needs to make his plantation thrive, and Lizzie can have a wet nurse to feed the children she continues to bear but is too weary to raise. But when Harlow brings men to the plantation to mate with them, the women — represented mostly by the perspectives of Serah and Junie — use the earthly medicines and rootwork they learn about from Nan, the eldest midwife among them, to stave off pregnancy.
The chapters of “Night Wherever We Go” are written from several different points of view: that of the women as a collective, who narrate frolics in the forest and ask the trees for their spiritual secrets; and the perspectives of Harlow and Lizzie, whom the women refer to as The Lucys, as in children of Lucifer.
By offering some empathy and description of the inner lives of Harlow and Lizzie, Peyton positions “Night Wherever We Go” in conversation with contemporary novels that reimagine the expansion of possibilities for Black enslaved people in the American South, like “The Prophets” by Robert Jones Jr. or “The Sweetness of Water” by Nathan Harris. Harlow and Lizzie’s naked cruelty, whether it’s whipping pregnant women while their full bellies are protected by bowl-shaped earth or attaching contraptions to their bodies with bells so they can’t run away, are familiar tactics in American pop culture narratives that remind us of the many evils enacted against Black people. But the novel also gives us glimpses of their desperation, their desire to be stable just like any other family. This is not deployed as an excuse for their actions; it’s just an interesting narrative layer that this book shares with the others.
And where those novels provide a refreshing expansion of how we think about sexuality and masculinity under slavery and Reconstruction, Peyton adds new dimensions of gender and faith. The community of enslaved women is determined to keep their beliefs in spirits and their gods. Patience keeps her rosary close, though Lulu steals it and tries to offer it up, along with other trinkets she’s stolen, to keep one of Harlow’s men from mating with her — to no avail. The bleak sense that their gods have not followed them to Texas from Africa is an observation that comes up more than once. Still, they kiss their sweethearts under the moon, they evade patrollers, and bury afterbirth in places where they want their babies’ spirits to be anchored.
The narrative thread of “Night Wherever We Go” can be hard to follow — there are moments when it’s not clear which of the characters is narrating what we see, or how we are to understand the appearance of letters from a character who has set off on a journey without any access to pen or paper.
But the arc of the story is intriguing enough to carry these details. The main protagonists, Serah and Junie, are women whose hearts live elsewhere, with beloveds whose fates are determined by power and economics. Serah is in love with Noah, a charming suitor who has fled toward Mexico in a bid for freedom, even as she fails to free herself; Junie is Lizzie’s preferred house slave, and she struggles to maintain that position for the sake of her children, given Lizzie’s control over their fate. And the lush descriptions of Texas heat — its oppressive, wordless weight (the weather is part of a constellation of weapons used against the women for punishment when they refuse to bear more children) — add a layer of beauty to the novel that makes it read like melancholia.
The tension at the heart of the book is whether collective resistance combined with faith can overpower the naked, powerful desire of a down-and-out white family to finally make a living and thrive. Everyone in “Night Wherever We Go” wants sovereignty and freedom. And as readers, we want that for each of them. We can see the interdependence, the ripple effect liberation might have.
“Night Wherever We Go” is a nontraditional love story, in that it asks us to remember that changing our personal history — acting with whatever power, big or small, we have in our reach — transforms our communities, too. Even when we feel there are no good choices, we are always choosing between the risk of attempting to control an uncontrollable destiny, and the comfort of surrendering to a situation in order to survive.
NIGHT WHEREVER WE GO
By Tracey Rose Peyton
Ecco, 302 pp., $27.99
Joshunda Sanders is the author of the forthcoming novel “Women of the Post.”