The Travelers

Regina Porter

The Travelers
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The Travelers

Regina Porter

An astonishing debut novel that bears witness to the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War and the first term of Obama’s presidency, The Travelers is both an intimate family portrait and a searing examination of America today.

James Vincent is born in 1942 to a working class white couple whose marriage was already on the rocks. James struggles to move beyond a difficult childhood and escapes the violence at home to attend law school in Michigan, where he begins to envision his future as prosperous and bright.

Meanwhile, on a rural road in Georgia, Agnes Miller, a black woman on her first date with a handsome suitor, is pulled over by the police, and the terrible moments that follow make her question whether she will have a future at all. As the years unspool ahead of them, unexpected turns of fate will connect these two lives and their families: two Americans who each come up against the forces of race, class, and gender that change - and end - ordinary lives.

Review

Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumna Regina Porter has an award-winning background in playwriting, and it shows in every line of her much-anticipated debut novel, The Travelers. Pitched as an intergenerational multi-family saga, The Travelers is certainly that, and more, but the writing has an uncommon, boiled-down intensity. It’s no stretch to imagine Porter’s somehow effortless and precise dialogue on stage or screen.

This novel has a complex plot that jumps between people, places and times. The narrative also incorporates occasional photos, scripts and letters, underscoring how similar everyday artefacts – a bowler hat; a newspaper cutting about aviator Bessie Coleman; a stolen copy of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; or an iron – assume great importance in various characters’ lives. These structural ploys could be disengaging, but in Porter’s hands they add interest.

Primarily set in several states across the US, The Travelers also takes the reader to Vietnam, Germany and France as it spans the mid-1950s to 2010, and crises both international and personal. Porter’s cast is too numerous to detail here, but there are several central, interconnected families, and a wealth of other characters, all of whose lives are influenced by the ricocheting effects of decisions – some of which appear momentous at the time and others that only later reveal their significance. Taking the wrong road home after a concert changes young Agnes and Claude’s lives forever, but, had they been White, it would have been a different story.

The crisscrossing tales that coalesce in Porter’s novel are concerned with racism, love, and loyalty. Identity constraints and expectations trouble many of her characters, and Porter explodes illusions of choice and destiny, especially for African American women, even as she explores those elements of life that are within her characters’ control. The Travelers is a timely and memorable novel from a talent to watch.


Elke Power is the editor of Readings Monthly.

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