In 1957, Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas was integrated – a process that required the intervention of then-President Dwight Eisenhower. The year represents a watershed moment for civil rights in the United States, but – to state the obvious – the integration of one high school did not end racism in the United States, nor did its aftermath alter the hearts and minds of bigoted Americans overnight.

Poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ debut novel “Promise” is set far from Arkansas, and far from the South, specifically, the fictional town of Salt Point, Maine, a relatively quiet place in the northern part of the state not far from (the real-life town of) Amity. But that’s the thing about idyllic small towns in fiction: they rarely stay idyllic for long.

At the start, Griffiths introduces the reader to three students at the local school. There’s Cinthy Kindred, the narrator of some of the novel’s chapters, and her sister Ezra. There’s also Ruby, raised in a fraught and economically ravaged home. Cinthy and Ezra are Black; Ruby is white. And while the three girls are close, their differences — and the way that society, especially the largely white population of Salt Point, perceives them is beginning to divide them.

Early in the novel, the girls’ teacher, Miss Burden, is found drowned, an apparent suicide. “(I)t was not the first time Salt Point fishermen had fished a woman out of the water,” Cinthy thinks. “But it was the first time that I’d known anybody that had died.” Her replacement, Miss Alley, quickly reveals herself to be the sort of person who can barely keep her racism from boiling over, and she soon makes the two sisters’ lives challenging – all the while beginning to view Ruby as a kind of protégé.

The Kindred family, we gradually learn, had moved north to get away from family trauma: The sisters’ mother, Jolene, has a troubled relationship with her estranged mother. Their father, Heron, cut ties with his family after an accident left his brother dead. Occasionally, Griffiths pauses the narrative to look back into the lives of Cinthy and Ezra’s ancestors, leading to some of the novel’s most evocative imagery – including a scene set in the afterlife that echoes throughout the book. The Kindreds are one of two Black families in the town. The other family – the Junketts – are also wary that the town’s racial dynamics could go horribly wrong.

“Promise” moves along at a low but effective simmer. Throughout, the older characters seem aware that the situation in Salt Point could rapidly turn tragic, but are equally aware that the alternatives are likely worse. The novel’s title has plenty of meanings, but its overarching one is in the sense of potential. The Kindreds seek to create a better world for Ezra and Cinthy. Ruby, for her part, resorts to theft to pursue her dream of being a pilot.


Griffiths excels in depicting the ways in which her characters are aware of the constraints of society and family yet have to make their way through the world. A third of the way through the novel, Ruby ponders the paradox of why some of the town’s Black residents don’t trust her: “It made Ruby angry that they wouldn’t ever give her a chance. It made her angry that she understood why they couldn’t.”

Later on, when tensions have escalated dramatically between the Kindred sisters and Ruby, Cinthy reflects on their conflict, and the tension at the heart of it: “We could not give Ruby the blood from our ancestors’ throats and songs. Ruby had to sing alone and that was a sad, sorry thing. But we owed her, and ourselves, no apology.”

Griffiths also has a gift for making nearly every character the protagonist of their own story. Even Ruby’s father, Josiah – who loses himself in alcohol most nights, abuses his daughter and is baldly racist – is depicted as the outcome of a host of painful events, not as someone who was born evil.

The final third of “Promise” finds the Kindred family besieged by tragedy, both specific to the state of the country in 1957 and in a more timeless way. The sheer presence and frank dialogue of a late-arriving supporting character offsets some of the bleak tone, but not the basic tragedy of the events. Nor should it. As Cinthy’s mother tells her late in the novel, “Where you find a tragedy, you will not find justice.”

And yet the promise of a better day endures, even in this book’s closing pages – even after all of the heartbreak that’s preceded it. And that, in turn, helps explain the tension between this novel’s hopeful title and the moral challenges found within its pages.

New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of four books, most recently the novel “Ex-Members.” He has reviewed books for The New York Times, Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: