The Cutting Season, by Attica Locke (2012) is an adept, completely absorbing crime/ mystery novel that grapples with race and history.
Set in 2009, five years after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans, Caren Gray, law school dropout and mother to 9-year-old Morgan, is managing the historical plantation Belle Vie south of Baton Rouge. Belle Vie is a kind of museum owned by the Clancy family, with a restored big house, cottages and outbuildings, and slave quarters. Actors playing slaves and masters put on a play several times a day for schoolchildren, and the buildings and grounds are used as event space. It is surrounded by sugar cane fields, and Caren was raised there; her mother was the cook for the Clancy family and her ancestors were slaves who cut cane.
One day in October, during cutting season, the body of a Latino cane field worker, Ines, is found just inside the fence line of Belle Vie. It’s the same day that Donovan, one of Caren’s actors, a college student with a record, has called off work. And that night Caren finds something so disturbing that Morgan’s father, Eric, drops everything going on in his life in the Obama administration to come to Belle Vie the next day. There is also a rumor that Raymond Clancy, Caren’s boss, is selling Belle Vie in advance of a Senate run.
Caren had always been told the story of her great-great-great grandfather Jason, a former slave who stayed after the Civil War but one day just disappeared. His cabin was the closest to the cane fields. The family thought there had been foul play, but in 1872, the disappearance of a black man was not adequately investigated.
The police find out that Donovan wasn’t truthful about his whereabouts the night of the murder, and with his record, it’s easy for the police to detain him. Caren, who worked in a legal clinic during her two years at Tulane, does her best to find evidence to exonerate him and protect Morgan at the same time. She is deeply affected by Ines’s murder.
This was the third Attica Locke novel that I’ve read; each has been excellent. But she’s also written and produced television, specifically Empire on Fox and Little Fires Everywhere on Hulu. If you’re interested in more, here is a great 2019 profile of her from the Washington Post.
The Cutting Season was also mostly free from fatphobia and diet culture, and, in fact, Caren acknowledges its effect on kids. She describes her daughter Morgan as “still carrying some of her baby fat” and as having a “small, round body.” Later, when Morgan has drawn a picture of a dress she wants to have for her father’s wedding, she drew the dress on a “long, lean figure in pointy high-heeled shoes,” saddening Caren because Morgan “wanted to look so unlike herself at her dad’s wedding.” I was very glad to see Locke’s recognition of diet culture as harmful to children’s self-image.
In descriptions of characters, Lorraine, the cook at Belle Vie, was described as “tall and black and unabashedly fat, carrying most of her excess weight around her middle, wearing it as a walking billboard for her talents.” Other characters, women who attended a prayer vigil for the murdered Ines, were “white and middle-aged and thick through the hips.” I didn’t find her description of Lorraine or the prayer vigil women as offensive, but just neutral descriptions. I would have preferred that she left out the “wearing it as a walking billboard for her talents,” because that supports diet culture’s stereotype that all fat people eat a lot, especially fat people who are good cooks. But this was the only bit of diet culture or fatphobia I found in the entire book. I can live with one phrase out of 372 pages in an otherwise brilliant book. That is progress.