In “The Peach Seed,” its author Anita Gail Jones wonderfully and lovingly immerses readers in the world of Fletcher Dukes and his family, their ancestors, their scars and their triumphs. This is a multigenerational story that explores the roots of a Georgia family’s tradition and how their children ultimately carry the weight of personal matters like family secrets, along with broader social and political matters such as the America’s Civil Rights Movement and the impacts of enslavement.
The story opens in the present day, with a seemingly routine scenario for the 70-something widower, Fletcher, as he and his older sister, Olga are grocery shopping at the Piggly Wiggly ( love the specific southern references like this). It doesn’t take long before this mundane task morphs into something much more as Fletcher notices an old flame, the love of his life, Altovise Benson in one of the store aisles. Back in the day, Fletcher and Altovise were hand-in-hand for sit-ins and marches, but their plan to take their relationship to the next level was interrupted when the police turned a peaceful protest violent. Separated initially by arrest and imprisonment taking them to different towns, they would eventually be released, but their relationship never the same. Soon after, Altovise rejects Fletcher’s marriage proposal, leading to what would be a separation spanning over 50 years.
Before their inevitable break, Fletcher carves Altovise a monkey from a peach seed, embellished with diamond eyes. We learn this is a tradition hailing back from an undiscovered Dukes ancestor who was sold into slavery who carved the first one—the Peach Seed Monkey -that forms the talismanic tradition. It became the rite of passage that each generation of Dukes men gifts to his son upon entering his teen years. Fletcher giving one to Altovise, creates a break in a tradition that irrevocably shapes the lives of future generations including Fletcher’s daughters and his grandson, Bo-D. Through carefully crafted flashbacks, we learn about Fletcher’s history with Altovise, their Civil Rights activism and the Dukes’ patriarch, Malik who was captured from Senegal and sold into slaver in the 1800s. Most of the book focuses on the current family and their contemporary issues such as Bo D’s struggle with addiction, and Olga’s discovery of Siman, a male relative who was put up for adoption soon after his birth in Michigan.
While the different generations, characters, locations and periods portrayed in the novel, in addition to its varied themes may seem like a lot to navigate, Ms. Jones intertwines it all with aplomb. She wisely places the greater emphasis on the modern stories and characters, treading lighter with Malik’s story. Throughout, not only is there never the feeling of being overwhelmed, but more so “The Peach Seed” is wholly engaging with fully drawn characters easy to invest in. Keeping in mind, that among the noteworthy characters, not least of which is the area of South Georgia itself. Wether the narrative takes you to in Africa, Michigan or Georgia, there is an unflinching and admirable sense of place as highlighted in the passage below, the opening of chapter one.
‘Albany. A southern city running on country fuel. Divided east to west by the Flint River, this corner of southwest Georgia is graced with majestic pecan groves and wildflower carpets buffered by blue skies; a region where flip sides coalesce, modern and antebellum, old growth and Johnny-come-lately. A place of long, deep pain, still refusing forgiveness; and yet propelled by joys and triumphs. In many ways, even in 2012, life here was the same as it was fifty years ago: a patchwork of citizens-from farmers and businesspeople to college students-going about their days as any other, separate and unequal.’
Although “The Peach Seed” is its own unique story, it laudably follows in the tradition of recent literary fiction gems such as Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing” and Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing”. Those titles are shorter than that of the little over 400 pages of this new novel, but even at its hefty page count, “The Peach Seed” is a deeply satisfying read, and may even leave many wanting more. Either way, more is what we want and expect to see from this impressive debut novelist, Anita Gail Jones.