Laird Hunt’s Kind One is a wonderfully crafted slave narrative that bends and breaks under its own narration. Despite Lucious Wilson and Scary Sue’s conversation at the end of the book that explains what this book is, there is still trouble in understanding why the book is written the way that it is. One way that this book can be understood is by focusing in on the idea of trauma and how it is used and conveyed throughout Hunt’s novel. In our reading of Tom Toremans’ Trauma: Thoery, there is one profound statement made by Cathy Caruth, who, speaking on the texts of Freud, Lacan, de Man, Duras, and Resnais, asks “[i]f traumatic experience […] is not fully experienced as it occurs” then it must be asked “what it means to transmit and to theorize around a crisis that is marked, not by a simple knowledge, but by the ways it simultaneously defies and demands our witness” (Caruth quoted in Toremans 337). She then goes on to explain that this question “can never be asked in a straightforward way, but must, indeed, also be spoken in a language that is always somehow literary: a language that defies, even as it claims, our understanding” (337). This is where I take my earlier notion that Kind One is a book that bends and breaks under its own narration. As the book progresses, the reader encounters plot points that ultimately change everything that the reader has previously thought about the book, but simultaneously alters nothing on how characters and their actions are viewed.
One such case in this book where the actions were deemed appropriate by the reader only to have the reasoning behind those actions inherently changed while still approving of the action is the change in Ginny’s narrative after the death of Linus Lancaster. In the middle of Ginny’s narrative, she is awoken one night by Zinnia and Cleome who bring her to the kitchen, where her dead husband, Linus Lancaster, sits with a pig sticker in his neck. From there on out, the reader becomes witness to the violent actions of Zinnia and Cleome. However, at this point in the novel, the reader believes they are witness to the acts of a slave revolt. After witnessing, in the first sixty pages of her narrative, the “nightly visits” of Linus Lancaster to Zinnia and Cleome’s bedrooms which Ginny describes in a very passive tone, along with the death of Alcofibras – “‘You must stop now, Husband,” I whispered at one point. I know the four of them next to me heard this. I also know that Linus Lancaster did not” (Hunt 77) – as well as the fact that Linus Lancaster is never mentioned in the book other than as Linus Lancaster, the reader gets the sense that Ginny’s torture after the death of Linus is justified by her passivity while he, seemingly, ruled over them all. At this, the reader feels that they are reading a Django-like slave narrative of retribution.
This retribution narrative gets turned on its head, however, when it is discovered that it is Ginny who had killed Linus Lancaster.
Or that it was ten days and nights of stroppings and visits down the hall from the time I found that second photographic portrait in my husband’s drawer in the chifforobe, on the back of which had been written, in my husband’s own hand, “dearly departed and my two daughters,” to the night I pulled the pig sticker our of the moon-slathered sow Linus Lancaster had lately slaughtered and hung up by the barn and came up behind him as he sat to a late whiskey, singing with that void of his, and gristled every speck of it into his neck. (Hunt 152-153)
How does this knowledge change the reader’s perspective of Zinnia and Cleome’s actions? I would suggest that it does not (or should not) drastically change the reader’s perspective of Zinnia and Cleome’s actions.
Throughout Ginny’s narrative it is assumed, beginning with the stories of Bennett Marsden, that Linus Lancaster is the father to Zinnia and Cleome. This fact gives further credence to the belief, held before page 152, that Linus’ death was part of a slave revolt lead by Zinnia and Cleome, who, not only being subjected to slavery, were subjected to rape by their own father, and that their murder of him, and torture of Ginny, was justified. Then, when it is discovered that it was Ginny who murdered Linus, it can be viewed that their subsequent torture was vengeance for the death of their father. However, this is disproved earlier in the narrative when Ginny reveals the second photograph to Zinnia and Cleome – at this time, the photograph’s image is not yet revealed to the reader – and tells them that she is sorry.
“Sorry about what?” said Cleome.
Zinnia reached into her apron, pulled the pig sticker out, and, holding it lengthwise, looked at it close.
“If he was sitting here with us, I would stand and put this right back into his neck,” she said.
“It would slide easy into that neck,” she said.
“Sloooosh now, Mother,” she said.
Cleome gave out a little laugh. (Hunt 140)
How then, can these actions be reasoned appropriate and the reader’s perspective of these characters not changed? My answer to this is that the death of Linus Lancaster was simply another notch of Ginny’s violence towards Zinnia and Cleome rather than pure aggression towards Linus Lancaster taken out. This leads me to assume that Zinnia and Cleome’s torture of Ginny was still indeed vengeance, but that their shift from tortured to torturer wasn’t invoked by the death of their father, but by the very first notion that reader picked up on: that this was a slave revolt. However, the revolt was not against Linus Lancaster, but against Ginny Lancaster.
This situation presented in the text describes exactly what I meant by Hunt’s narration bending and breaking itself. The reader’s first assumption of the text seems ultimately changed and is seen as a plot twist, but that it is essentially unchanged, despite the narrative upheaval that goes on around it. This seems like an appropriate example of what Caruth discusses in that language must defy our understanding, while still claiming it. The trauma felt throughout this narrative is always felt just under the surface, as elegantly stated by Ginny after Zinnia and Cleome ask why she would be sorry for killing Linus. “Things hidden inching up” (Hunt 141). Inching up, but never fully realized in the text – this book’s unseen traumatic affect becomes its own “black bark.”
For Ginny, this black bark is not the trauma of knowing what she did to Cleome and Zinnia before Linus’ death, but rather, the black bark is the trauma of wondering why she survived their torture, why she was let free. This concept is brought up by Cathy Caruth in her own essay entitled Violence and Time: Traumatic Survivals.
What is enigmatically suggested […] is that the trauma consists not only in having confronted death, but in having survived, precisely, without knowing it. What one returns to, in the flashback, is not the incomprehensibility of the even of one’s near death, but the very incomprehensibility of one’s own survival. (Caruth 25)
Caruth also explains the paradox of surviving a traumatic event because, in the moment of the event, the trauma is not realized, or truly experienced, thus, the eventual flashbacks of the event are meant as the mind’s way of trying to come to a resolution with the traumatic event. However, this cannot be done, and thus more trauma is produced within the victim. Because the reader is given the look-in at Lucious Wilson and Ginny (then Scary Sue) discussing what should be done with the stack of papers containing hers and Zinnia’s stories, it can be inferred that the narratives of Kind One, both of Zinnia and Ginny, are written retrospectively – giving weight to the idea that everything read has come about in the form of traumatic flashbacks, which ultimately calls into question the validity of each narrative.
Kind One can also be seen as a catharsis for both Ginny and Zinnia and the trauma that both carried along with themselves throughout their lives. I also consider the black bark that Zinnia and Ginny carry with them to be their own “crypts,” those memories, that trauma, that they carried with themselves that they could not rid themselves of. As Gabriele Schwab explains in her essay Writing Against Memory and Forgetting she says that “[t]rauma kills the pulsing of desire, the embodied self. Trauma attacks and sometimes kills language. In order for trauma to heal, body and self must be reborn, and words need to be disentangled from the dead bodies they are trying to hide” (Schwab 41). Perhaps, by the time Lucious and Sue discuss what must be done with hers and Zinnia’s story, Sue is prepared to move on. Her life now free from the trauma it was constricted by for so many years.