Stranger Here Below
Stranger Here Below tells the stories of three generations of women whose lives are connected by a single institution and a changing America.
Amazing Grace “Maze” Jansen and Mary Elizabeth “M. E.” Cox meet at Berea College in Kentucky in 1961. Maze is a poor white mountain girl and M. E. is one of just a few African American students at the college. The young women come from difficult backgrounds and both have mothers who have struggled. Hinnefeld tells the stories of the four women, mothers and daughters, and a fifth woman named Sister Georgia. Sister Georgia went to Berea College decades earlier and is now the last surviving Shaker in Pleasant Hill, a Shaker community near Berea College.
Maze and M. E. are college roommates and scholarship students, but they are not necessarily fast friends. M. E. was raised by a stern preacher father and by Sarah, a mother who retreats into a strange world where she is incapable of simple communication. Both her race and her family background make M. E. unsure of her place in the world and she seems unable to enjoy her musical talents or her friendship with Maze. Still, Maze pursues their friendship doggedly, inviting M. E. to spend time with her at her mother's home. Maze's mother Vista raised Maze on her own, her husband having abandoned her after one night of marriage. Vista is now Sister Georgia's caretaker and the two young women stay with Vista in Sister Georgia's home.
Together the girls watch Sister Georgia perform her Shaker rituals, her dancing, and her shaking and they go through a Shaker ledger from a century ago that contains herbal remedies and recipes. Sister Georgia is old, alone, and the last member of a religion of celibates. What the two young women do not know about Sister Georgia is that when she was in college she fell in love with a black man, but her father, an abolitionist, forbade her to marry him. Her life, like and Sarah’s, is one marked by loss.
Mary Elizabeth is a talented pianist who was courted by the university for her musical abilities. School officials seemed to imply that it was unusual to see such talent in an African American. M. E. is confused by their attentions and turns away from her music. But in the early 1960’s, Maze imagines a different kind of America. She dreams of a twentieth century communal living experience that would nurture people like the five women of this book.
It's a grand scheme, and this book covers a lot of territory in few pages. Hinnefeld begins in 1968, with Maze writing a letter to her missing friend Mary Elizabeth. The next chapter takes us back to 1872 and the birth of Sister Georgia. The lives of all five women unfold in a nonlinear fashion, in isolated sections, and these sections weave in and out of the book's present and deep into the past. Perhaps this weaving back and forth in time reflects the fractured nature of these women's lives. Sometimes it's hard to put the pieces together, just as it's hard for the women to keep their own lives in order. As readers we have to work for it, but in the end I think it's worth the effort. I cared about these women and the pressures they stood up to in their struggles to make themselves whole.