MAY 21, 2014
ATTICA LOCKE’s The Cutting Season begins with a cottonmouth snake interrupting a wedding, dropping from a tree into the lap of the bride’s mother-in-law. In Locke’s own words, it is a symbol for Belle Vie, the historic Louisiana plantation-turned-tourist destination where the story is set, and how “its beauty […] was not to be trusted.” It can also be seen as a metaphor for the whole novel, how beneath the surface of its whodunit plot is a daring act of social critique. In this way, The Cutting Season is a double-edged murder mystery boasting not only Locke’s strikingly original voice, but also a timely and politically committed story that will leave a lasting impact on both the reader and the mystery field.
A labyrinth of intersecting histories and politics, The Cutting Season dexterously reveals its narrative threads in the best fashion of the genre: the ease of the storytelling belies the complexity and nuances of the story. When Inés Avalo, a migrant worker from a neighboring farm, is found murdered on the estate’s grounds, Belle Vie’s manager, Caren Gray, finds herself pulled into the investigation. The police suspect Donovan Isaacs, a young student who works part-time on the estate acting in historical recreation. The estate’s lawyer encourages Donovan to take a plea bargain for a lesser sentence, but Caren is convinced that he is innocent and that Belle Vie wants him to take the rap in order to cover something up. Looking into the dirt on Belle Vie, it turns out, also means dredging up her family’s own complex history with the land, including the unsolved disappearance of her great-great-great-grandfather, Jason, who had been a slave on the plantation prior to the Civil War and worked the land as a free man, but who vanished without a trace over a century ago.
The mysteries of The Cutting Season run much deeper than the identity of the murderer. Much of the book is concerned with who owns, and who is the author, of “history,” and Locke uses Caren Gray’s investigation as a means of scrutinizing the social record and public memory. The Cutting Season can be seen as part of a historical moment, along with Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave,that reexamines not only America’s legacy of slavery, but also its cultural representation and misrepresentation. Unlike those movies, however, Locke doesn’t adopt a single interpretive strategy. Instead, there is a meta-consciousness to her book. She sees discrepancies as sites of meaning and insight — historical inaccuracy as a vehicle for understanding not only what certain parties want to see in the past, but also what they fear from it.
Caren Gray is an ironic choice as manager of Belle Vie. Overseeing the grounds, coordinating parties, and directing historical reenactments, she is the one responsible for sustaining the antebellum glow for tourists and school groups. The ancestor of former slaves, her background is practically a conflict of interest. The discordance between Belle Vie’s real and imagined past, however, is not lost on her. She admits that the estate’s historical reenactment, “written by a state senator’s wife,” is, “admittedly, bad […] as soapy as Gone With the Wind, full of belles and balls and star-crossed lovers, noble Confederates and happy darkies and more dirty Yankees than you could count. And the tourists loved it.” Even the rare instance of beauty amidst all the ugliness of the past is not safe from such bad narrativization. When the slave quarters were “preserved” for exhibit, they were divested of the
tiny, square patch of dirt and weeds where vegetables and wildflowers once grew — a historical fact which [the estate] had pointedly refused to re-create, even in a nod to verisimilitude, for fear of being accused of painting too pretty a picture of slave life, of being called an apologist or worse.
Donovan Isaacs’s revisionist solution, however, is no less fictitious and farcical. Like something from the mind of Tarantino, Isaacs’s film project mixes pulp and past, turning the real story of a Reconstruction-era black sheriff investigating the disappearance of Jason into a high-octane revenge fantasy. It was, in Gray’s eyes, “an absolute mess, a boyish fantasy, an overcorrection that favored Donovan’s own misguided ideas about power and score-settling over any real semblance of the truth.”
The one story that has not been told is that of Gray’s ancestor Jason. The uncertainty of whether he moved on to bigger and better things, or was murdered and never escaped the land that enslaved him for so long, has fueled local legends. The deeper Gray goes in her investigation, the more it seems that Jason’s story is both the missing link between Belle Vie’s fact and fiction, and a vital piece of evidence in the death of Inés Avalo.
More than a social commentary, The Cutting Season is an exquisitely crafted novel that revamps time-honored mystery conventions for the 21st century. Instead of the old dark house with hidden passages, Locke gives us the plantation whose secrets lie not in the building, but in the land itself. And Caren Gray, a flesh-and-blood updating of the amateur sleuth, is as morally ambiguous as her name. More than just protecting her family and exonerating her employee, Gray is weighted down by an even greater responsibility. Like the newspaperman in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, knowledge comes with the burden of historical truth, and Gray must decide whether she will side with legend or fact. It’s a choice that the book’s author, Attica Locke, thankfully doesn’t have to make, and in The Cutting Season, fact and legend can be printed side-by-side.