Laird Hunt: Kind One
Review by Emily K. Harrison
(Coffee House Press, 2012)
I was first introduced to Laird Hunt’s work through my own medium—theatre—when Buntport Theatre Company in Denver produced an adaptation of his novel Indiana, Indiana in 2009. I attended a performance without knowing anything about the novel or Hunt’s work. I went because the Buntport team consistently creates and produces outstanding original work, and their adaptation of Hunt’s novel was certainly no exception. Later, the lovely images from the production still flashing in my mind, I picked up Hunt’s novel and read it, enthralled.
Hunt’s latest work, Kind One, is as much a beautiful and terrifying haunting as it is a novel. A moving and deeply disturbing story of the antebellum South, its pages are visited by traditional folklore and the words of Shakespeare, just as its characters are plagued by specters from the past, as well as cycles of abuse and violence they are doomed to perpetuate.
With the grudging blessing of her father, 14-year old Ginestra (Ginny) leaves her Indiana home to marry her mother’s second cousin, Linus Lancaster, and join him in his Kentucky “paradise.” She immediately befriends Lancaster’s two slave girls, Cleome and Zinnia, but soon realizes that her husband’s promises are as empty as he is volatile. As the story unfolds, the “shadow” that comes to rest over the Lancaster estate grows, threatening to swallow the inhabitants of this “paradise” whole, no matter how far and fast they run.
When her husband’s sexual attention inevitably drifts to Cleome and Zinnia, Ginny reacts by taking her years of suffering out on the two sisters, punishing them mercilessly for the part they unwillingly play as Lancaster’s concubines. This betrayal sets up the story at the heart of Hunt’s novel: loss so profound it can never be assuaged, trauma so ingrained it can never be exorcised, and small, unexpected acts of kindness that pave the way for a chance at forgiveness and redemption. Upon the untimely demise of Lancaster, the two sisters turn the tables on Ginny, exacting a brutal revenge. The two eventually decide to make their escape, leaving Ginny behind, shackled and chained in the very shed in which Lancaster, and later Ginny, enacted atrocities upon the two women and the other slaves in Lancaster’s possession. It is the bright memory of a singular act of kindness that proves Ginny’s salvation and decades later compels Zinnia to seek out her former abuser.
Like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which is quoted throughout, Kind One is broken into five distinct “acts” or sections. Ginny’s portion, “Kind One,” serves as the primary text, preceded by an “Overture.” Hers is followed by smaller sections offering the perspective of other characters, including Zinnia and Prosper, the illegitimate son eventually born to Cleome. Each division is prefaced with a quotation from Act II, Scene ii of The Tempest. Unlike The Tempest, which is one of Shakespeare’s only plays observing strict adherence to the Neoclassical unities of time, place, and action, Kind One jumps back and forth in time, in addition to frequently shifting geographically, making for a nonlinear whirlwind of a storm with roots in rootlessness.
In many respects, Kind One, like The Tempest, is a story of exile as much as it is about enslavement and subjugation. The difference here with regard to exile is one of necessity, arguably of choice born absent of any other suitable option. Ginny’s self-imposed exile is double: the first unwitting, which divorces her not only from the safety of her home and family but from her childhood, and which spawns the second, a necessary path of penance and absolution. Likewise, while Shakespeare’s protagonist, Prospero, is a powerful magician who cruelly enslaves the inhabitants of the island to which he is exiled, Hunt’s Prosper is a magician of a different sort: a stonecutter, an orphan, an ordinary man quietly seeking out his own legacy and along his journey, discovering the acts of both humiliation and kindness that helped bring him into the world. Prosper, too, is an exiled man, but an exiled man of another stripe, a man who managed through magic of a special sort to escape a harsh destiny, carried as an unborn child in the belly of a desperate runaway slave.
Kind One points to the reality that it is impossible to escape the past. Though all three women literally run to evade their history, they will be forever bound to each other, tied together by a single spool of purple thread, which time and time again conducts a delicate salvation, mercy, kindness. Ginny tries desperately to escape her past by taking a new name when she finally comes under the employ of Lucious Wilson, a kind Indiana farmer who eventually comes to love and respect her. However, the suffering she both endures and inflicts haunts her with a ferocity that she finds impossible to escape or forget. In some respects, just as she tries to forget, she simultaneously strives to keep these memories alive for herself, subjecting herself to constant physical pain as a punishing reminder, thus, making forgiveness and salvation an impossible dream. The last words of Ginny’s section are telling:
Comes a day when everything you thought you had put behind you sets up its tent in the middle of what you were still hoping you could call tomorrow and yells out “Right this way.”
Well, here I come.
Hunt’s skill as a storyteller is staggering. Though his work is Faulknerian in some respects, Hunt continues to develop a unique style all his own. His is some of the most haunting and versatile American work being written today. In Kind One, he reveals the tragedy and the glory of perception and reversal: the master becomes the slave, the abuser becomes the abused, the haunted becomes the ghost, the exiled is homed, and the one thought to be hard, is in truth, the kind one.