No Crystal Stair, Eva Rutland's first mainstream novel, chronicles six decades of American history through the experiences of Ann Elizabeth Carter Metcalf and her family. Rutland's semiautobiographical novel takes its title from a stanza in Langston Hughes' 1922 poem "Mother to Son." Both the poem and the novel carry messages of hope and perseverance in the face of life's disappointments.
No Crystal Stair begins in Atlanta before the onset of World War II. Ann
Elizabeth Carter is the daughter of a prominent African-American physician. In the midst of the segregated South, Ann Elizabeth lives in a sheltered world protected in a cocoon afforded her by her parents' love and social class. After graduation from Spelman College, she is expected to follow in her mother's footsteps -- marry a doctor and take her place among the Black social elite.
However, Ann Elizabeth has doubts about making a lifelong commitment to Dr. Dan Trent. Something, she feels, is missing from their relationship. She recognizes that something in Robert Metcalf, a member of the first Black unit in the Army Air Corps, stationed at Tuskegee, Alabama. Rob -- like his best friend, Ann Elizabeth's older
brother Randy -- is a Tuskegee Airman. Ann Elizabeth and Rob fall in love and, after a brief courtship, are married.
Ann Elizabeth's life is irrevocably changed as she begins married life with Rob. This is life in the real world. Her metamorphosis begins when they leave her Atlanta cocoon and take up residence in a room in Tuskegee. Rob comes of age as well, through his experiences in the military and his role in liberating captives from a German concentration camp. In 1945, "the Rob Ann Elizabeth had seen off to war was not the Rob she welcomed home."
Rutland skillfully weaves two tales -- the Metcalfs’ story and that of American society during the latter half of the twentieth century. Ann Elizabeth and Rob's lives are played out against a time line of American history. Through their story the reader is able to see the impact of historical events on one middle class African-American family. One is able
to discern the disparity between policy decisions and historical events and their implementation and realization.
For example, Rob is still thwarted by racism and bureaucracy when he attempts to enroll in the Army Air Corps program, despite presidential orders from President Roosevelt to admit Blacks to all areas of the armed services. The G.I. Bill, which provided housing and educational benefits for returning veterans, is credited with creating the modern American middle-class. However, Rob encountered opposition when he attempted to
purchase a home for his family. The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawed segregated schools, but the Metcalfs faced fear and violence in 1958 when their six-year-old daughter, integrates their neighborhood elementary school in Virginia.
Eva Rutland tells the stories beyond the glare of the media spotlight. The Metcalfs were among thousands of anonymous men and women who chose to make a difference within their communities by taking a stand and coping with the day-to-day realities of their lives. And, although the author is adamant that her novel is not the definitive Black experience, there are familiar occurrences many readers can relate to. No Crystal Stair also outlines changes in women's roles and social mores during the period and Ann Elizabeth's relationships with her mother and daughter offer insight.
Likewise, it is interesting to follow Maggie Metcalf's development from the
first Black child in her school to a 60s activist in college to her courtship and marriage.
No Crystal Stair is a departure from Rutland's earlier works. The author,
who occasionally includes African-American characters in her novels, has taken a frank, head-on look at racism. In addition, her use of language may surprise many familiar with her work. There an instances of profanity and liberal usage of "the N-word." The PG-13 rating relates to language rather than sexual content.
Eva Rutland's wonderful story has been released to coincide with Black History Month. It's worth a look.