This book of short stories by a woman who teaches art in Charlottesville is a debut book. The short stories are well-done and arresting but the novella that gives the book its title will be my focus.
After reading the first 10 or so pages, I found that when I wasn’t reading I had a vague feeling of impending doom. Of course in these times, that’s not unreasonable, but the cause of my feeling was this story. Despite my aversion to adding to the usual concerns, I kept reading and the reward for that more than compensated for the anxiety.
The story takes place in Charlottesville in the near future when environmental disaster has disrupted everything from the grid to the political structure. A disparate group of Black people must escape their neighborhood when attacked by a racist militia and they head for Monticello. The narrator, leading the group, is Da’Naisha Love, who grew up in town and had been a student at the University until everything broke down. Others include her white boyfriend from the university, Knox, her childhood friend (and more) Devin, her beloved and fragile grandmother MaViolet. The group worked together to organize so they could survive with what they found on the “little mountain.”
I loved the local references that are so familiar to me, from Brown’s Corner Store where they have excellent fried chicken, to the community college, to the orchard (Carter Mountain), and of course Monticello. I found that I have been at Monticello enough times so that I could picture all the rooms as she described them. The recent events and awakening understanding for white people in our town of what it means to be Black were part of the story. Though these familiar details added to my pleasure, it is interplay of the overarching story and the personal interactions of the individual characters that make this a fantastic book.
In the section on Monticello in his recent book How the Word is Passed, Clint Smith articulates how deepening understanding came for me. A tour taken with friends in 2018 by the guide Smith describes was electric and along with recent events in our city brought the descendants of the enslaved at Monticello more into my consciousness as people. The past, well, we know it isn’t past. We know those people.
Though I won’t go into the personal dramas of the individuals in My Monticello, I want to emphasize how artfully their experiences occurred in the midst of the disastrous breakdown of society. Ms. Johnson made their personal stories vibrant and important in the midst of all else, an amazing feat.
As a side note, the great review in The Washington Post was written by Bridgett Davis whose 2019 book, The World According to Fannie Davis, I greatly admired.
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, My Monticello, Henry Holt and Company, 2021, 210 pages. Available in the public library.