Book review: The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr.

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

When faced with the sheer enormity of evil and suffering, pain and despair, represented by slavery, it might be hard to see how love could make any real difference to people caught in its cruelly unyielding grip.

But in the intimately expansive story of The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr., we are shown a potent example of how love, real muscular and enduring love, the kind that can survive beatings, harassment and grievous loss, can triumph where none might it can.

This love, evidenced by the union of two men, Samuel and Isaiah who find in each other a way to survive the horrors visited upon them on a daily basis, is something truly remarkable in the hands of an author who seems to understand how powerfully transformative this kind of love can be.

Brought together as teenagers when Isaiah is brought to the Elizabeth Plantation near Vicksburg in western Mississippi and meets Samuel after a traumatic wagon ride that takes weeks to complete its long journey, the two young men sleep in the barn, the centre of their work environment which involves the husbandry of the various animals on the farm, along with some cotton picking once their main work is done, making a home that nurtures and sustains, emotionally and physically.

No one is especially troubled by their forbidden union, or at least are not impelled to speak up about it, until Amos, an older man looking to ingratiate himself with the plantation owner, Paul, declares his intention to preach the master’s gospel to his fellow slaves.

“Isaiah waved. Samuel stood motionless, transfixed, a humming in the air that seemed to come from both him and not him, which frightened her. She turned and walked toward the gate and stood briefly at its opening. It framed her like a picture and continued to do so until she walked beyond it and headed due north.” (P. 53)

It is a commitment borne of the need to shore up an impossibly precarious situation, a fool’s errand in some ways since Paul and his wife Ruth do not see their slaves as people but rather workhorses and studs to be bred, and while of course they want the Lord’s work to spread to everyone, they don’t really view the Black people on their plantation as possessing souls that need to be saving.

But Paul is intrigued by Amos’ enthusiasm, and after a mini-epiphany of sorts that the slaves might actually be in possession of souls worth bringing to Jesus, he works with Amos to convert the slaves to a Gospel that truth be told ne barely pays heed to, at least when it comes to its innate humanity.

Paul is blind to his Christian hypocrisy and even as he instructs Amos in how to preach the Gospel, he and his wife treat their enslaved workforce with a violently cruel indifference to suffering that shows they may speak the words of Jesus but do not, in any meaningful way, heed their substance.

Amos is not troubled by this because all he cares about, essentially, is saving his own skin, but by so doing, he fractures whatever commonality of experience there may have been among his people, setting in a train a chain of events that is going to end affecting almost everyone for the worse.

Robert Jones, Jr. (image courtesy Hachette Australia)

For all of the cruelty and horrors depicted within, The Prophets is an exquisitely beautiful, tender and amazingly hopeful book.

Detailing the lives of the slaves while they were still in Africa and documenting, with a truthfulness that will shock readers to the core, what they endured on their transport to the Americas, Jones also shows with tenderness and insight, and language that reads like a voluminous poem sprung affectingly to life, how powerful love can be even in circumstances this awful and brutal.

He doesn’t pretend for a second that it is a balm to salve all wounds – how can he? It is strong but the forces arrayed against are unrelenting strong and enduringly vicious and brook no easy defeat – but he does acknowledge, in ways marvellously insightful and moving, how everyone, even in the very worst of places, are instinctively driven to find a small piece of happiness where they can.

For Samuel and Isaiah, and those close to them such as housekeeper Maggie, who delivers them food on the sly, Puah and Sarah, who has her own illicit secret to hold close, one which predisposes her to understand why the union of these two men matters so much, it comes down to finding solace in their found family of sorts, fractious though it may be at times.

“This is why Isaiah and Samuel didn’t care, why they clung to each other even when it was offensive to people who had once shown them kindness: it had to be known. And why would this be offensive? How could they hate the tiny bursts of light that shot through Isaiah’s body every time he saw Samuel? Didn’t everybody want somebody to glow like that? Even if it could only last for never, it had to be known. That way, it could be mourned by somebody, thus remembered–and maybe, someday, repeated.” (P. 309)

They will never true freedom and release, marked as they are by what the book’s back cover blurb rightly calls “the pain and suffering of inheritance”, nor will their small moments of happiness lead them to lives shorn of pain and misery but for the two men in particular, their union is the difference between the darkness of ground down oppression and the sense that maybe some beauty, some measure of love and fulfillment can be theirs.

That it comes up against betrayal and the loss of a great many things isn’t surprising since Jones sagely observes that simply because they are all slaves, it doesn’t everyone away from the Big House, is of the same heart and mind, but he is also adamant, in the most nuanced and moving of ways, that these same injustices and attacks are not capable of robbing this love of its raw, intimately beautiful power.

The Prophets then is a remarkable, brutally truthful about what life is like for people like Samuel and Isaiah but also frank about how their love can take something almost universally evil and draw some good from it, the kind that remakes world and changes perspectives and goes some way to mending broken and sorrowful hearts.

This is a novel that is almost impossible to fault in any way.

Poetic to its singing core, The Prophets knows sadness and pain, horror and suffering, terror and loss, but it also sings about love and togetherness and the deep bonds of friendship caring, and how even when rage feels like the only companion that anyone has left, making it one of those novels that will arrest you over and over again as you grapple with the very worst and the very best of humanity and realise that for all its attendant nightmarish qualities that the former does not always totally subjugate the latter.

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