Justice and Forgiveness: On Attica Locke’s “Heaven, My Home”

ATTICA LOCKE’S BEEN on a roll lately. Already well regarded thanks to a résumé that included the award-winning Pleasantville and a writing gig on Fox’s Empire, the last year has seen her reach new heights of recognition across her various writing projects. Her 2017 novel, Bluebird, Bluebird, won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award, and then earlier this year she came to popular attention as a writer on Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, a Netflix miniseries on the Central Park Five. Across these disparate projects, Locke’s work has been marked by a commitment to character and plots that delve into ugly and underexplored racial truths. Her latest, thankfully, is no different.
Heaven, My Home is a direct sequel to Bluebird, Bluebird. The setting moves up Highway 59 to Caddo Lake on the Texas-Louisiana border where Levi King, the nine-year-old son of an imprisoned Aryan Brotherhood of Texas (ABT) leader, has gone missing after taking his skiff out onto the lake. Texas Ranger Darren Mathews gets sent to work the case because of his prior work on the ABT taskforce; Ranger officials are optimistic they can leverage the boy’s disappearance into information from his distraught dad.
Levi’s family lives in Hopetown, an unincorporated backtown on the shores of Caddo Lake. Founded by freed slaves in the antebellum South, it was a self-sustaining black and native community for most of the 20th century but started steadily losing residents in the 1970s and today is firmly on “the dying side of history,” as Leroy Page puts it. Page, now well into his 70s, is the last black resident of the place; he and a few Caddo Natives are all that remain of the old Hopetown. A little ways down the shore, a few trailers full of ABT associates form the other half of Hopetown. Page rented a few acres to Dixie-flying redneck Lester King back in the ’80s as Hopetown was beginning to die; despite their differences, the two men grew to respect each other and share the occasional beer. In the last year, however, Lester’s ABT-affiliated daughter moved in, and with her came other trailers full of white supremacists squatting on his land.
The boy’s disappearance comes at a pivotal time for both sides of Hopetown. Lester has been planning to sell the land to Rosemary King, the boy’s grandmother and a powerful figure in nearby Jefferson, a sleepy tourist town trading on its antebellum history. Bill King, Rosemary’s son and Levi’s father, is an ABT leader with a parole hearing coming soon. All the while, Darren’s also navigating a minefield of barely contained personal issues on the verge of crisis that threaten to blow up his professional life as well. For the most part these subplots carry over from Bluebird, Bluebird; Darren’s mom and wife return, bringing new tensions in both Hopetown and Houston, as does his best friend Greg, an FBI suit trying to navigate the new politics of the Trump administration.
The extended scope serves the novel well; Heaven, My Home takes Bluebird’s interlocking histories and expands the concept both personally and professionally to build a denser novel with a larger cast of characters than before. Locke is deft enough to keep it working structurally and avoid chaos, though the sheer number of subplots means that some feel like they’re deliberately left open for further exploration in a sequel. The case at the heart of it all is a good one, with Rosemary King and Leroy Page fully figured foils well suited to work through the central themes of the story. Far from bringing a sense of urgency, the missing boy’s ambiguous status leaves plenty of room for new problems to fester in Hopetown and Jefferson. Darren remains a strong central figure, this time less assertive and more trying to keep his footing as the maelstrom that is his professional and personal lives swirls around him. The dynamic of a black Ranger’s pride butting up against the small-town police returns, doubly effective here because Rosemary (for multiple reasons) is connected and important enough that Darren can neither bypass nor steamroll her. Their interactions are highlights, as every time Darren enters her antebellum home (complete with deferential black servants) he’s forced to do battle with someone his badge does not intimidate.
The concept of forgiveness is central to Heaven, My Home: who deserves it, who can or should provide it, and whether it is a valid and stable foundation for progress. The 2016 presidential election plays a major role in this regard. Darren views Trump as “forgiveness betrayed,” a monument to the power of white fear. Far from being an abstract concept, this reverberates to create new crises on his job’s hate-crime beat; old resentments gain new steam in an atmosphere of elevated hatred, and gains considered won and settled become contested ground again. This works well when it becomes a new jagged edge wearing at the case; Greg raises the possibility of winning favor with the new Justice Department by framing Levi’s disappearance as a hate crime committed by a black man. That said, one recounting of a 1980s conversation where Darren and the uncles who raised him discuss Jeff Sessions’s failed nomination for the federal court feels like Locke getting a little too cute.
Far from being side narratives, Darren’s personal problems offer new and different variations of justice and forgiveness. Darren’s mother, for example, has her own personal demons and was largely absent from his childhood after having him as a teenager. As an adult, he maintains a fragile peace with her, trying to play the role of good son while avoiding her attempts at guilting him or rolling him for money. Before the Hopetown case begins, she found potentially explosive evidence of Darren helping out a family friend who was being terrorized by an ABT associate. Darren has to try to gauge to what degree his mother is protecting him versus blackmailing him; the lines between the two are more fluid and shifting than he’s comfortable with. One exchange early on sums up the push and pull: just moments after pledging that she’d protect him, his mother asks for rent money, a request that reminds Darren that the relationship he wants isn’t the relationship he has:
Something between them, some hope he’d allowed himself to touch, had been broken, and Darren felt wronged anew. It seemed every time he was ready to lay down their history and start over, to build the love that was in there somewhere, every time he reached out to forgive her everything, he got his hand slapped.
It’s worth noting that a full appreciation of Darren’s inner turmoil is predicated on the reader having read Bluebird, Bluebird. The backstory here is recounted throughout the book, but the full details of why he’s so loyal to these people and what emotional ties they’ve formed are in the past. Locke’s talent for character is such that these are worthy continuations even without prior knowledge of the series, but you do yourself no favors by missing out on the opportunity to see her use the full space available to her to flesh her characters out.
If Bluebird hinged on the idea that full knowledge/accounting of a previously unknown past can lead to understanding in the present, Heaven, My Home suggests that even a fully understood and comprehensible past doesn’t always bring clarity in the present day. Darren is neck-deep in uncertainty, all the worse for the fact that he knows it intimately; the ugly details of where it came from don’t offer any solutions. Heaven, My Home presents different ways of moving forward, but ultimately abstains from suggesting we can know for sure what the right path is. “[E]very act of forgiveness was a leap of faith,” Darren notes toward the end of the book, and what makes Heaven, My Home a success is Locke’s willingness to explore what exactly it feels like when you’re wondering where you’ll land.
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Nathan Jefferson is a writer and graduate student currently living in Chicago.
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