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Ellen Douglas: Apostles of Light

Long out of print, till reissued by the University Press of Mississippi in 1994, this is one of the finest American novels of this century. If you had to sum it up you might call it One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for old people, with a bit of the Invisible Man thrown in.

Elizabeth Griswold and Martha Clarke are two old sisters living together in a large house in Homochitto (the small Mississippi town seen in other Douglas novels). Elizabeth Griswold dies and the family is left with the decision of what to do with Martha Clarke. The family are all good and well-meaning and have the best of intentions. Enter Howie Snyder, a distant cousin. Howie is a widower and has recently lost his job. He proposes moving into the house and running it as an old people’s home as there is no such home in Homochitto. There are many”good” families in Homochitto looking for such a home, i.e. eager to offload elderly relatives. Very soon, Howie has got everyone to agree and the house is converted into an old people’s home, called Golden Ages (I am sure the similarity to”Golden Arches” is deliberate). Martha has made one stipulation – that her friend Dr. Lucas Alexander move into the home. We soon find out that Martha and Lucas had been lovers, when Lucas’ wife was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Alexander is an honest doctor who was squeezed out of the Board of Health because he had a habit of bringing up embarrassing health issues such as pollution and the treatment of the black population.

Dr. Alexander soon starts sticking his nose into the running of Golden Ages, colliding with Howie on more than one occasion, when he soon notices the inhabitants are being neglected or dosed up on tranquilisers, when Howie is having an affair with one of the nurses and the other nurse – Mrs. Crawley – (whom Dr. Alexander had caused to lose her job some years before when she performed an illegal abortion resulting in the death of the woman) is stealing drugs. But Dr. Alexander’s complaints are to no avail as the family – all good people – believe Howie.

The title of the book comes from the Second Book of Corinthians and where this book takes off is in Douglas’ brilliant depiction of what, for her, is clearly the evil we now face. All the family is apparently well-meaning and wants the best and Douglas portrays them as good and honest people but, even as they smile, they are running their own agenda and the two clearly honest people in the book – Martha Clarke and Lucas Alexander – are going to be victims of the apostles of light. Unlike One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where Nurse Ratched is clearly a bad person, virtually everyone in this book is clearly a good person. Howie and the two nurses are ambitious and bend the rules but they are not ruthlessly dishonest or cruel. Douglas brilliantly portrays this dichotomy by having the seemingly good people unwittingly destroying what is good by seeking to do what is their interest and ignoring the interest of others.

There are two other important themes. There is the obvious theme of the dignity of old age as both the physical and mental faculties crumble. But more important is the Invisible Man theme. Matthew Harper – everyone calls him Harper – was for a long time the servant of Elizabeth Griswold and Martha Clarke and is now the general factotum of Golden Ages. Harper, like many blacks, has learned only too well that the secret of success for a black in Mississippi is invisibility. Don’t get involved in white people’s affairs and stay out of sight as much as possible (he calls it scrambling or hiding in caves). Dr. Alexander tries to get him to help but he is having none of it, knowing full well that if there is a fight between two groups of whites he does not want to be in the middle of it. Harper is trying to bring up his grandchildren and, in particular, Lucy, who is the nurse having an affair with Howie. Lucy is ambitious – she wants to go to New York and be on TV – and is easily twisted by Howie and Mrs. Crawley for their own ends, despite her grandfather’s advice. As well as working at the home and caring for his grandchildren, Harper has one hobby – following examples of major killings throughout history. He is, of course, well aware how many of his people died on the journey over from Africa but, while he is fascinated by many of the obvious historical slaughters, the two that interest him most are the slaughter of 1.6 million inhabitants of Herat by Genghis Khan in a week (the sheer logistics baffle him) and the slaughter of 29 million Congolese by the Belgians. The purpose of this is not just to show man’s cruelty to man and how blacks, in particular, have all too often been victims of whites but to make a very strong comparison with the”old” evil of mass slaughter and the”new” evil of the apostles of light. Are they comparable? Not yet, says Douglas, but watch out.

Publishing history

First published 1973 by Houghton Mifflin