Anniston Star Review of Children of Dust

By Steven Whitton | Special to the Star
Sep 10, 2021

Children of Dust,” the new novel from Alabama native Marlin Barton, is by turns deeply moving and acutely chilling.

The landscape of the novel is the South of both William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren. Within an almost Faulknerian deliberation on family, Barton also contemplates what Warren has to say about history and how it alters truth at every turn.

Barton adeptly illuminates the inherent divisiveness in the South by means of an ingenious symbol from his novel’s brief opening. In 1973, a young white boy named Seth Anderson rides his yellow bicycle past an unpainted house with rotting boards. “His father told him that original hand-hewn logs cut by freed slaves lie beneath the boards.”

Young Seth sees a black woman step into the house’s dogtrot, which Barton describes as “that large passageway through the very middle of the house.” That dogtrot, which divides the house, becomes a recurring symbol in “Children of Dust,” and not just along racial lines.

That division is very much evident in the terrifying first moments after the novel moves back a century to one of Seth’s ancestors and the women in his life.

It is 1883 in rural Alabama. Rafe Anderson’s wife, Melinda, is having a hard time giving birth, despite the help of her servant Annie Mae. The baby is the tenth Anderson child Melinda has carried. She quietly names him Jacob, a name she refuses to tell her husband.

When the baby is discovered dead the next morning, Melinda becomes a suspect, as does Rafe’s mixed-race mistress Betsy, who is also Annie Mae’s daughter.

That death will have far-reaching consequences as Rafe, Melinda and Annie Mae confront who they have been and who they have become.

Rafe is a violent, enigmatic man, “a man who already had more sons, more children, than a husband should.” Despite having fathered those ten children with Melinda, he also has two young children with Betsy and two with Virginia, his mistress in town.

Yet Rafe never hides the fact of the children he has fathered out of wedlock. He remains solicitous of them, as he is of his children with Melinda. In addition, he remains troubled by his own personal history. He has run away from a painful childhood, and he is deeply haunted by what he saw and did during the Civil War.

Barton finds touching, unspoken connections among his novel’s women, despite race and its intrinsic guardedness. The connection between Melinda and Annie Mae is especially poignant, for example, ever echoing the relationship the privileged Compson women have with their maid Dilsey in Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.”

Such relationships resonate in passages a century later between the adult Seth and his own mixed-race cousin Charles. Both men are fundamentally historians trying to get at the truth of what really happened in Rafe’s family. Says Charles, “Of course, if you go back deep enough, you always discover ugly things.”

What they discover is no surprise: it is the same conflict between history and truth found in Warren’s “All the King’s Men.”

Through each of its vivid characters, Marlin Barton’s gripping new novel unearths the conundrum of “a shared and culpable guilt, and maybe not only for their silence but for something passed down to them they don’t know how to define or even name.”

In essence, “Children of Dust” is family history that time and again attains the heights of classical tragedy, whether within the dogtrot of a decaying Alabama house or at the collective foot of three tiny graves sheltered under the same communal stone.

Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.