The House of Eve historical novel by Sadeqa Johnson


Reading Sadeqa Johnson’s redemptive gut punch of a novel, “The House of Eve,” made me recall the dissonance I felt in the summer of 2021 when National Book Award winner Ibram X. Kendi declared that the United States was experiencing a Black Renaissance. In Time, Kendi and other prominent writers hailed the power of Black art across a variety of cultural forms. It felt strange to celebrate such victories at a time that otherwise felt so devastating. Two years on, amidst a decidedly unfinished and inadequate reckoning, those feelings remain. And yet, it is also undeniable that the renaissance is real. Despite continued barriers to entry, Black creatives are producing phenomenal and socially relevant art at an impressive rate. It’s an especially great time to be a reader of historical fiction that illuminates the African American experience. “The Prophets,” “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois,” “Libertie” and “The Trees” are towering achievements, but they are just the best known of a remarkably vibrant category.

“The House of Eve,” a new historical novel by the breakout author of 2021’s “The Yellow Wife,” is an affecting and arresting exploration of young Black womanhood and motherhood in the mid-20th century and a significant addition to this exciting body of work. Though less harrowing than Johnson’s last, which portrayed the life of an enslaved woman forced to serve as concubine and companion to the warden of the infamous “Devil’s Half Acre” slave prison, “The House of Eve” is just as haunting.

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Johnson’s talents are in full bloom in this layered story with two distinctive and compelling young Black women at the center — both ambitious and talented strivers, who face a minefield of challenges in pursuit of their dreams. Despite the unwanted adult attention she attracts, Ruby Pearsall is just a child who’s had to grow up fast to stay safe. The determined 15-year-old high school sophomore fights to not just survive but thrive despite her precarious home life with a resentful mother, Inez, who was barely more than a child herself when she gave birth. There are others who love and care for Ruby, especially bold and unconventional Aunt Marie, who runs numbers, and wise Grandma Nene, but none of them ever went to college. What Ruby envisions for herself — to be a doctor — stretches not just their grasp but imagination.

Propelled in part by resentment of her father’s more prosperous family who rejected her before she was born, Ruby imagines a triumphant future when they “would be down on their knees begging my forgiveness for abandoning me. They would see that I was good enough. Smart enough. Worthy of the last name, Banks, that they made sure Inez did not include on my birth certificate.” Just as important, “I was determined to prove myself, to give Nene her eyesight back—and to never have to depend on a man to keep a roof over my head.” To make her dreams a reality she’s set on earning one of two full-ride scholarships designated for Black students across Philadelphia, and for Ruby that means there’s no room for error. She has to be “impeccable in every way.”

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Compared to Ruby, Eleanor Quarles seemingly has it made. Raised in a “shotgun house” in a small town outside Cleveland, she didn’t grow up rich, but she had the support and protection of two loving parents. As a college sophomore at Howard University in Washington, D.C., she attends the most respected and storied historically Black university in the nation, an institution so steeped in Black aspiration it’s sometimes called “Black Mecca.”

Despite their differences, Ruby and Eleanor have more in common than it appears. Separated by several years in age and just over one hundred miles, Johnson’s protagonists face similar struggles as they strive for the same things. At its heart this is a powerfully immersive story of Black love and feminine ambition constantly challenged but never diminished. In the years after the war and long before the women’s movement, these characters, and real women like them, were eager to use education as a steppingstone to a better life. But what Johnson deftly illustrates is that there’s more than financial advancement at play. Ruby and Eleanor prioritize education as the path forward, and their most concrete goals involve college degrees and well-paying careers (not just jobs), but their true desires run broader and deeper.

Ruby and Eleanor want love and careers, family, friendship, security, belonging, respect and to make a meaningful difference. Ruby wants to study medicine to help people. Eleanor is in love with books. She planned to study English, then fell in love with Black history working in Howard’s special collections. Were their stories unfolding in the wake of the women’s movement, observers might derisively label the scope of their desires as wanting to “have it all,” but Johnson reveals her characters’ wants as instinctual and elemental. And yet reaching for first love, explorations of sexuality, all the normal experiences of adulthood are fraught with danger. Both choose partners that society deems inappropriate. And for both women sex has the potential to throw them off course.

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These struggles consistently resonate as Johnson effectively attends to Ruby’s and Eleanor’s interior lives as well as their circumstances. The one drawback as a reader is the gap between the quality of the social and psychological observation, world building and ideas Johnson tackles regarding women’s lives and social hierarchies and the writing, which doesn’t rise to the same heights. At times, lines that are meant to be conversational or colloquial feel rote or cliched. And yet, such issues remain relatively small. The novel’s great beauty lies in the truth it depicts.

One such truth involves Johnson’s sophisticated and specific portrayal of intraracial divisions. So often when the idea of internalized anti-Black racism is broached there’s a hard and false dichotomy drawn between those who buckled to white supremacy and those who stayed in community with other Black people. But there is more nuance to this aspect of Black American history, as writers like Brit Bennett (“The Vanishing Half”) show. Through Eleanor’s romance with a medical student with deep roots in D.C.’s upper class, “House of Eve” exposes the colorism and classism ingrained in Black elite institutions. Eleanor may be enrolled at the Black Mecca, but she still feels like an outsider. Her working-class roots and darker skin mean she’s not as welcome as she had expected. Howard certainly didn’t invent or own colorism, but it’s notable how closely Eleanor’s experiences echo author Toni Morrison’s reflections about her time on campus in the same period.

None of the social currents Johnson depicts are as dissimilar to the present as we might wish them to be. Class, race, color, reproductive freedom, respectability politics — the issues and social forces Ruby and Eleanor grapple with are painstakingly drawn and achingly familiar. This is Johnson’s great strength — weaving distinctive characters in riveting situations that shine a light on broader experience. If not entirely artful, “The House of Eve” is engrossing, emotionally wrenching and socially astute storytelling. Time in Ruby and Eleanor’s world is time well spent.

Carole V. Bell is a Jamaican-born writer, critic and communication researcher focusing on media, politics and identity.

Simon and Schuster. 384 pp. $27.99

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