Not since Reynolds Price's award-winning, bestselling novel Kate Vaiden has he told a woman's story in her own voice. Roxanna Slade is this woman. Roxanna begins her story on her twentieth birthday -- a day that introduces her to the harsh realities of adulthood and changes the course of her life forever. From this day on, Roxanna is quick to share with the reader the intimate details of ninety years of life in North Carolina. Her beguiling tale is one that boldly reflects the high and low moments in the development of the modern South and the nation as well as the inner strength of a woman possessed of a piercingly clear vision, forthright hungers and immense vitality.
Chapter One Every time somebody calls me a saint, I repeat my name and tell them no saint was ever named Roxy. They know of course I was seldom called Roxy, though back in my childhood I tried to persuade my family to call me Roxy instead of the Anna which everybody chose but my brother Ferny. He'd call me Rox at least half the time and was my big favorite. For practical purposes Anna Dane was my maiden name, I never enjoyed it. Even now after so long it has never seemed to be me. Roxanna means Dawn or Daybreak which is fine, but my family never called anybody by their whole name. So through the years I've consulted several child-naming books in hopes of discovering some good luck in Anna. But they just say the name is an English version of the Hebrew Hannah and that Hannah was the name of the prophet Samuel's mother and also Christ's maternal grandmother. Both women were likely saints, and I never felt the least kinship to either one. There was a popular song years back called "Hard-Hearted Hannah, the Vamp of Savannah, G.A." I've wished more than once she could have been me. But not one person who's ever counted deeply called me any more than nicknames, no one that is except a tall boy named Larkin Slade. And he died young, leaving me off stride for the rest of my life. In a way Lark's death was the start of my life which is strange to think of. I was grown when he went, just barely grown. But I've given that odd fact a good deal of thought through the intervening years. Whenever I've heard about people's childhoods -- how urgent they are to future health and pleasure -- I've always felt that my childhood scarcely amounted to more than a dream, a pleasant enough dream with no grave fault, no hard stepmothers or beasts in the night but a made-up childhood all the same, certainly nothing real enough to cause the bitter pain I've since known and am bound to have given. I had kind parents with no bad traits except my mother's tendency to put on flesh and the plug tobacco that my father chewed as neatly as any horse chews hay. They never had a great deal more money than it took to get from one day to the next. Father ran a store with groceries and dry goods that ranged from gingham to plow points but was always in dutch. Still none of us children ever went to bed hungry or lacked clean clothes sufficient to the season, and we were respected on every side.
In the kind of town where I grew up, few distinctions were made on account of money unless you were outright redheaded trash. Truth was, you were either white or black. In those days we said colored if we meant to be courteous and not hurt people, and the color of your skin pretty much said all there was to say. The Bible forbade calling anybody common (Acts X:15, "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common"). So even if they were the sorriest white skin ever conceived, the worst you could call them was ordinary. There were four Dane children in my generation, counting me -- two girls, two boys. It was not a big family for that day and age. I and my sister Leela were the second and third children. There was one brother two years older than I and one who was younger than both us girls. So Leela and I came very close to raising the boys once Muddie's kidneys began to fail. Muddie was our mother. That failure took long years but always kept her unreliable for bearing serious weight and pressure. Still my brothers were good boys in those days, just normally wild before they grew up and left home naturally. How they fared after moving away is a long grim tale that may not belong here, depending on where my story leads me. Both of them perished in sad circumstances well before they deserved, one of them leaving a wife and children that I've scarcely known. But I can see each of them in my mind's eye, fine as they were in their fortunate days and prone to gentleness till they each found some drug to lose their minds for -- money in one case and pills in the other.
For instance it was through the good will of my younger brother Ferny that I met Larkin Slade and loved him on sight. Ferny had met Lark the summer I was nineteen when Fern went to work for a bachelor cousin of ours named Roscoe Dane far up on the Roanoke River, a cranky old bird who smelled like bacon and tried to cultivate rented land with insufficient help or truly good sense and was always in straits, though all of us liked him. His nearest neighbors were a family of Slades. There was old Major Slade who'd lost half a leg and several fingers in the Civil War, his second wife Olivia who was far more beautiful than any woman since, and numerous children of all kinds and ages by each of the wives. Most of the young Slades had grown up and left with very little trace of themselves like children in old-time pioneer stories who bid you farewell and cross the far hills to vanish forever. The Slade place had been up there way more than a century, just above the flood plain of the Roanoke when the river was wild. And though it was only eight miles from our home, Ferny stayed gone forever till Roscoe's cotton was sold in late September. When Fern got back to us in time to start his last year of school, he was browner than any walnut chair. And very nearly all he could offer by way of memory from a long summer's work was praise for somebody named Larkin Slade. Lark Slade deserved all the praise he got, as I soon learned thanks to Ferny's good-hearted descriptions. My birthday falls on October 8th, and on the year in question -- 1920 -- I was blue for several causes as the date drew near. My sister Leela had fallen out with me for fairly normal sisterly reasons having to do with a blouse we shared. We'd spent too many years in each other's faces, and Muddie had taken my sister's side as she generally did. In those days in any case there were so many souls in every family that you never made much of any birthday even if you were well off, so I had no great hopes for my twentieth.
Discuss how Reynolds Price captures the voice of Roxanna Slade through his economical, yet expressive use of language; his ability, as a man, to recreate the voice and manner of a woman from a wholly different time; and RoxannaÕs use of anecdotes, tangents, and colorful phraseology. Identify other ways in which Price makes Roxanna's story so authentic, it is easy to forget it's fiction.
Roxanna only knew Larkin for a few hours, yet she feels disloyal to him in marrying Palmer. Why is Roxanna so devoted to the memory of someone she knew so briefly? Do you think it's possible to form a more lasting bond with one person in a single day than you can form with another over the course of a lifetime? In the end, who was a more important influence on Roxanna's life: Larkin or Palmer? Discuss the different ways in which each one touched Roxanna's life.
Compare the attitudes and character of Roxanna's mother, Muddie, to Olivia Slade. Who had a stronger hand in shaping the woman Roxanna becomes? Who do you think Roxanna respects more? What does Olivia teach Roxanna that she can not learn from her mother?
Roxanna begins her story by asserting that she is by no means a saint. But later she says, "a saint by most folks' meaning is just a person who never blocks your path but grins and yields to your will." (106) Do you agree? By that definition, is Roxanna Slade a saint? Why or why not?
Roxanna feels she is the one who must always stay strong when times are tough -- and proves it by keeping her composure for Ferny and the Slades after Larkin's death. Why does she feel this responsibility? Discuss how the men and women in Roxanna Slade respond differently to crisis. As a whole, who are stronger?
Roxanna admits later in life that her love for Larkin was more infatuation than anything else. Do you agree? Is it possible it could have been more, given the short time they knew one another? Discuss how and why Roxanna transfers her affections to Palmer so quickly after Larkin's death. Do you think Roxanna married Palmer out of guilt? A sense of duty? Did she truly love Palmer when she married him, or did her love come later?
Palmer Slade is portrayed as a decent, if somewhat stoic person, an ample provider, and a good husband, father, and man. But Palmer is also a highly flawed individual. Do you think Roxanna is blinded to these flaws by her love for Palmer, or does she simply forgive them -- and expect the reader to forgive them as well? Do you think Roxanna is too easy on Palmer -- or does his loyalty through her depression make up for his shortcomings?
Roxanna says, "I was born too far back and have lived too long to lay out more secrets...than are strictly needed for the story I'm telling." (98) What does she mean? That she doesn't feel the need to tells us everything -- or that she'll tell us only what she wants us to hear? Do you think Roxanna tries to influence our reaction to her story? If so, do you think she's aware of it?
At one point, Roxanna wonders if some memories are simply "delusions fed by hunger." (136) Is it possible that Roxanna unintentionally altered her memories at times because the truth was too painful? How would Roxanna's narrative have been different if she had told her story as the events occurred rather than at the end of her life? Discuss how our memories are affected by the passage of time. Is it possible for anyone to provide a truly honest and complete account of his or her own life?
Roxanna talks about the insignificance of time and how the important moments of most people's lives make up only a few minutes combined throughout the years. She proves her belief in this theory by spending significant time recalling one event, and then glossing over other years with barely a word. How does this attitude shape the way Roxanna lives her life, and the way she constructs her life story? Does she question her role in the world less than she would if she looked for meaning at every moment?
How and why do Roxanna and Mally maintain such separate lives while living under the same roof? Does this self-imposed separation reflect their employer/employee relationship? Their racial differences? Why does it take so long for them to address the issue of Mally's paternity? Did you find it surprising that both women could remain silent on the subject for so long?
For his time, Palmer seems to have a fairly progressive attitude toward the black community. But in the end, he wrongs the two most important black people in his life: his daughter and his best friend. What does this say about his true feelings? Is he only comfortable in relationships with black people when he has the upper hand? Do you agree with Palmer's assertion that, on the issue of slavery, the South won the Civil War (227)?
On the issue of race, Roxanna lumps herself in with the masses who contribute to the inequity in the world by remaining silent. Is she too hard on herself? Can one take a less than active approach in trying to make the world a better place and still be a good person?
Throughout her life, Roxanna wonders if Fate and God are one and the same. What do you think? Are the many coincidences that occur throughout Roxanna Slade the result of one or the other -- or both? If not, who is orchestrating the events of RoxannaÕs life?
Reynolds Price (1933-2011) was born in Macon, North Carolina. Educated at Duke University and, as a Rhodes Scholar, at Merton College, Oxford University, he taught at Duke beginning in 1958 and was the James B. Duke Professor of English at the time of his death. His first short stories, and many later ones, are published in his Collected Stories. A Long and Happy Life was published in 1962 and won the William Faulkner Award for a best first novel. Kate Vaiden was published in 1986 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Good Priest's Son in 2005 was his fourteenth novel. Among his thirty-seven volumes are further collections of fiction, poetry, plays, essays, and translations. Price is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and his work has been translated into seventeen languages.
Richard Bernstein The New York Times Reading Reynolds Price's novel Roxanna Slade is like sitting through a long and languid North Carolina evening and listening to an intimate summing up of a hard life.
Diana Postlethwaite The Washington Post Reading Roxanna Slade is like sitting at the feet of the wisest, most engaging, truth-tellingest grandmother imaginable....Here is language you can swim in, inhale, savor on the tip of your tongue.
David Weigand San Francisco ChronicleRoxanna Slade is a profoundly and provocatively hope-filled book -- one might even say spiritual....Masterful...compelling.
Charles Frazier author of Cold Mountain What a privilege to sit down with this book and let Roxanna Slade's wise, strong voice talk in your mind for a measure of hours about the profound consequence of ordinary lives.
James Schiff The Raleigh News & Observer A virtuoso performance...through Roxanna's voice Price demonstrates that he, more than any of his contemporaries, is indeed a singer of stories.
Janet Burroway The New York Times Book Review A chronicler of decency, pluck and joy, in novel after novel [Price] has given us the weight and worth of the ordinary.
Ellen Kanner The Miami HeraldRoxanna Slade shows that in a world of deceit, a simple, good woman is something exceptional. She can tell a good story if you have the time to listen.
Barbara Holliday Detroit Free Press Reynolds Price may well be the dean of Southern writers.
Anne Rivers Siddons Extraordinary. Price knows all there is to know about the American South, and Roxanna Slade is what he knows. It's a powerful book in its deceptive simplicity, vivid and particular. I loved it.
Polly Paddock Gossett The Charlotte Observer Price proves yet again why he is one of America's most esteemed writers. His prose is rich and lyrical; his insights keen; his ability to slip inside the skin of his characters (especially women) astounding.