The history of America – more particularly of the United States – owes a great deal to slavery and the American Civil War. But I didn’t realise just how much until I read The Other Side of the Sun, even though I’d already read and loved the incredible To Kill a Mockingbird years ago. Subsequently, however, The Other Side of the Sun paved the way for me to appreciate the feeling (though not the philosophy) behind the ideology of Afrocentrism when I first encountered it in Public Enemy’s lyrics. And it introduced me to the truly amazing story of Liberia’s origins. Just about the only thing I knew about Liberia previously was that George Weah were born there. (When I was keeping up with football a few years ago, one of ‘my’ teams was AC Milan.)

Luckily for me – starting from a point of near-complete ignorance as I was – Ms. L’Engle eases the reader into the very complex and intense world of the Renier family, living near Charleston, South Carolina about thirty years after the end of the Civil War. This is because we meet the Reniers alongside the narrator: Stella Renier née North, a 19-year-old English girl who has just married into the family and is a bit of a naïf. (Her husband hasn’t had the time to fill her in on the goings-on either in the family or in the wider context of the deep South, having had to leave Stella very soon after the wedding on a secret diplomatic mission.) We learn about things just as Stella does. The War and the legacy of the slave trade is there, in the distant (so Stella thinks) past, but is somehow pressing very closely on the present, and especially on Stella.

This isn’t some sort of epic novel that tackles with broad strokes the broad issues of racism and (other forms of) hatred. It is far more intimate, being concerned with the fates of individual characters. But isn’t history ultimately made up – collectively – of the many small, small stories of ordinary people? And the lessons of history are probably most apparent on the small scale, too. For me, racism and hatred boil down to one’s view of what it means to be a morally autonomous human being and how to live as a morally autonomous being. That is, ethics. More specifically: shouldn’t I treat a fellow creature the way I myself would want to be treated? Hitler and anyone who commits a racially-motivated crime (I say crime as if it is synonymous with morally wrong, but of course the law does deviate from the moral consensus), suicide bombers and Crusaders, cold-blooded murderers, rapists, people who commit [fill in your heinous deed of choice here]… Perhaps if you are capable of doing such terrible things to another person, an underlying condition must be that you think of him as less than you, in fact less than human, and therefore undeserving of the treatment that an equal deserves.

But with slavery and the American Civil War, things were not so simple. Actual subscription to a notion of Roman property law (i.e.: the property-owner can do as he pleases with his property) is not necessary for one to treat people as mere objects, and I’m very grateful to Ms. L’Engle for making this so clear. As Aunt (really Great-Aunt) Olivia explains to Stella:

Slaves – we hadn’t seen any difference between having slaves and having servants. We treated our slaves a lot better than most people treat their servants. We didn’t see anything wrong. We all buy and sell people as well as things every day. It’s just more apparent when you call people slaves than when you hire them and then overwork and underpay them and cheat them whenever you can.… Stella, believe me, it wasn’t any of it cut and dried, black and white. The war wasn’t about slavery, not really. That was the smallest part of it.

The Other Side of the Sun was published in 1971 (according to my ex-San Diego County Library copy) and Ms. L’Engle has written numerous novels since, but I think this must be the best of her adult fiction (and also one of my favourites): I have read just about all of her novels, and the only one which rivals it for impact is A Severed Wasp. This isn’t as easily or immediately applicable to one’s (ordinary) life as is A Severed Wasp. But the central truth of The Other Side of the Sun is seared into the mind in a way that that of The Severed Wasp is not, if only because of the setting and the story. There are truly horrifying things recounted in this novel. And yet the acts of brutality and hatred are somehow balanced – countered – by one tremendous act of love by one of the most lovable characters I have ever encountered (Aunt Olivia). This is how I perceive it; I think this is also how Ms. L’Engle meant it; and this makes the novel lovable to me.

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