In Jesmyn Ward’s latest, an enslaved teenager draws upon the strength of family bonds and elemental spirits to find her own path to resilience.
Let Us Descend, by Jesmyn Ward, Scribner, 305 pages, $28
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“The first weapon I ever held was my mother’s hand.” From the opening line of Let Us Descend, Jesmyn Ward draws her readers into her familiar world, one where violence collides with strong family bonds, where motherhood is a place of fear and loss but also of strength and resilience. She then ushers us into something new for her, a genre novel mixing historical fiction with fantasy and using both to craft a powerful narrative of enslavement and resistance.
“Historical novel” isn’t quite the right term for this book, which strips that particular genre down to bare bones, omitting the elaborate descriptions of antebellum houses, clothing, and customs—except for those belonging to the practice of chattel slavery. Let Us Descend follows an enslaved teenage girl, Annis, as she is separated from her mother near the Carolina coast, then sold to traders who walk their chained merchandise one thousand miles to New Orleans. To this portrayal of enslavement at its most brutal, Ward adds an element of the fantastic, using it—like recent writers from Colson Whitehead and Kaitlyn Greenidge to adrienne maree brown and Alexis Pauline Gumbs—to ask questions about power, agency, and past and future choices.
Ward also takes down to its essence a theme of her previous novels: the hope that love and family ties can be strong enough to heal the psychic wounds inflicted by exploitation and injustice. At the book’s start, Annis and her mother, Sasha, serve in the house of their white enslaver, who is Annis’s father. Eavesdropping on her half-sisters’ lessons, Annis hears their tutor “telling a story of a man, an ancient Italian, who is walking down into hell. The hell he travels has levels like my father’s house. The tutor says: ‘ “Let us descend,” the poet now began, “and enter this blind world.” ’ ”
Shortly afterward, Annis’s own descent begins. Sasha tries to protect her from rape by her father, who as punishment sells Sasha to Georgia slavers. Bereft, Annis turns for comfort to her fellow house-slave Safi, the first in a series of friends and strangers whose kindness gives her strength. But when their love is discovered, Annis is also sold and, barefoot and shackled, begins her deadly and dehumanizing journey. “We are livestock,” she thinks, “expected to walk and drop filth like horses.” Ward describes every bit of the ordeal in ravishing prose that moves to the rhythm of footsteps, the pour of rain, the scrape of wind, the ache of suffering.
Yet Annis does not make her descent into hell unaccompanied or unarmed. She has her mother’s love, her memories of “a woman who hides a tender heart: a woman who tells me stories in a leaf-rustling whisper, a woman who burns like a sulfur lantern as she leads me through the world’s darkness, a woman who gives me a gift when she unsheathes herself in teaching me to fight.” And she has her mother’s warrior training, the skills that Sasha learned from her own mother, Azagueni, who served as a conscript in a female army in her native Benin.
Along with her fighting techniques—which feel reminiscent of Black Panther—Annis has the power to see the spirits that once followed her grandmother on the Middle Passage. The first one to appear is a creature of air and storms, her skirts “obscure and full as high summer clouds, towering in the sky, boiling toward breaking. What I thought was a cape is tendrils of fog draped over her shoulders, yielding curtains of rain down her arms.” In a novel set partly on the Gulf Coast, where Katrina raged, the wind spirit, Mama Aza, is the strongest, but spirits of water and earth also speak to Annis, sometimes helping her, sometimes tempting her to give up, to drown or relinquish her body to the soil. As in Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, where the living converse with the dead, the spirits are partly there to make bearable experiences that would be unendurable without symbolic intervention. And here the spirits give Annis powers, maybe even superpowers, an interior resilience against the might of her oppressors.
Annis’s forced march ends at a plantation near New Orleans, in a place that might be an early version of Bois Sauvage, the fictional setting of Ward’s previous novels. Bois Sauvage is modeled on DeLisle, Mississippi, where Ward’s family have lived for generations, and in this iteration it has two groups of Black inhabitants: the enslaved and those who risk their lives to escape. Put to work on a sugar plantation, Annis must decide whether to stay or run, to remain “stolen” (her word for enslaved) or to join the free people hiding in the swamps.
She must also decide whether to give the fealty that the spirits demand or to put her faith in the humans who help her. Like all tyrants, Ward’s slaveowners are both cruel and needy, dependent on the esteem of the people they have stolen. And Mama Aza and the others are ultimately little different from them: “We want to be seen by you. . . . We want your beseeching. We desire your songs.”
The novelist with whom Ward seems most in conversation is Toni Morrison. Let Us Descend recalls not only Beloved, Morrison’s mother-daughter ghost story, but A Mercy, her historical novel, set in the seventeenth century, about a daughter whose enslaved mother gives her away to keep her from rapist slaveowners. Convinced that she is not loved, the daughter never recovers from what she experiences as betrayal.
In response, Ward delivers a moving defense of the strength and persistence of mother love. Ultimately Annis recognizes that the spirits, as they always are in fantasy, are just manifestations of her own strengths. At the close of Let Us Descend, it’s the bond between mother and child that proves the real talisman against oppression, one that affirms the human value of both their lives.
Julie Phillips’s most recent book is The Baby on the Fire Escape, on mothering and creative work.