Take the community storytelling approach of Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” but populate it with the cast of HBO’s “Treme,” then add the pathos of Toni Morrison and change the setting to California’s Inland Empire, just east of Los Angeles, and you’ve got something close to novelist Susan Straight’s achievement with her trilogy of novels centered on the fictional communities of Rio Seco (modeled on Riverside) and of Sarrat, a strange enclave of Creole culture just across the river. “It wasn’t even a neighborhood, like the Westside,” explains Sidney, a young man entranced with Sarrat and its people: “It was another world.”
The origins of Straight’s powerful American epic begin in antebellum Louisiana with an African slave named Marie-Thérèse; her story, and that of her daughter, Moinette, is told in the first novel in the trilogy, “A Million Nightingales’’ (2006). The second book, “Take One Candle Light a Room’’ (2010), centers on Moinette’s granddaughter Fantine “F.X.” Antoine. This beautiful third novel, “Between Heaven and Here,’’ takes place several years before Fantine’s journey, but at its heart is the same mystery: the death of Fantine’s childhood friend, Glorette. The three books do not need to be read in order. If there is one thing we learn from Straight’s storytelling, it’s that the past, present, and future are with us all the time.
“Between Heaven and Here’’ begins with the presumed murder of Glorette Picard, 35-year-old mother of Victor, daughter of Gustave and Anjolie, friend, prostitute, crack addict, and legendary siren of Sarrat. Each chapter of the book is voiced by a different narrator trying to solve or at least come to terms with her death, and the power of her beauty. “No one looked like Glorette,” says her childhood crush, Sidney, “[e]ven with all the smoking and the streets, her teeth were still white as mints, her neck marked with only one creased line like faint jewelry.” “She was luminous,” says her son, Victor. “Skin gold as a mothwing,” remembers her uncle Enrique. “Men following her everywhere.” “She was too beautiful,” remembers her father, Gustave, “and no one would leave her alone.” From the very beginning of this family saga, starting with the slave girl Marie-Thérèse, whose daughter, Moinette, was the product of a rape by her white owner, beauty has been an inheritance and a curse.
“The fear of her beauty wound its way through [Gustave’s] entrails . . . he had asked his wife if she were afraid of Glorette’s beauty, and she nodded.” Glorette’s mother was one of six Louisiana girls sent to Sarrat by their families to escape Mr. McQuine — owner of the plantation where they lived and worked — and a serial rapist of young girls. As the novel progresses and we meet more characters, we see that Sarrat is a refuge in the most basic sense: a shelter from danger. In this shaded California orange grove with its collection of a dozen small houses, the Antoines, Picards, and a few other Louisiana-born families are literally refugees, trying to create new lives while endlessly replaying the horrors of those they left behind.
In this setting, Glorette’s murder is both tragic and no surprise to those who love her. She risked her life every night meeting strangers in dark alleys. Sidney is the first to find her corpse. “He couldn’t call the cops. Not a brother walking through the alley near midnight, a loser with no car, no woman, only a couple of anime videos . . . Hell no. Wasn’t no SVU: Rio Seco . . . Nobody would care about Glorette.”
Sidney takes her body home, to Sarrat, and her childhood friends and family spend the rest of the book reckoning with her life and death, and their own. The children of Sarrat see in Glorette everything they’ve tried to avoid. “I am not these people,” Clarette says when she sees her childhood friend dead. “I am not the people who get high all night and die and then my kids have to see a dead body.” Clarette, who works at the local prison, has struggled to make a solid life for herself beyond Sarrat. But the older generation in Sarrat can’t dismiss her so easily. “She your people,” Marie-Claire insists. In Glorette’s hard life and sad death they are all reminded of the pain they left behind in Louisiana, in slavery, in many lifetimes of struggle.
Is it ever possible to start over? Straight’s novels pose this question and offer varying answers. Some of her characters do manage to move toward better lives, toward college and jobs with benefits and piano lessons for their kids. Others are trapped by circumstances and their own expectations. Despite the tragedies that befall them, Straight’s characters still recognize the splendor of the natural world, from the pepper trees behind the taqueria to the orange blossoms in the alley scenting the midnight air. Their language is beautiful, too, a mix of French patois and California slang. Straight’s group portrait of this community ought to be recognized as a national artistic treasure. Her focus on this singular place magnifies the hopes and disappointments of so many Americans, so many humans on earth. In the single chapter told from Glorette’s point of view, she is 17 years old, and being driven to the beach on a date. “It’s an hour to the ocean and you never been there?” he asks. “Glorette had shrugged . . . ‘It’s an hour I ain’t never had free.’ ”
Buzzy Jackson is the author of the novel “Effie Perine” and other books. She can be reached at www.BuzzyJackson.com.