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Literature / The Keepers of the House

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The Keepers of the House is a 1964 novel by Shirley Ann Grau.

It deals with several generations of the Howland family, rich landowners in Mississippi. The first William Howland set down roots in Mississippi after marching with Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812. The Howlands prosper as plantation owners, managing to hold onto their wealth and their land after The American Civil War and the end of slavery.

Much of the story follows the fifth and last William Howland, born in the later 19th century. William marries young and has a daughter, but when their son is born his wife dies of childbed fever, and the boy dies soon after. William is left a single father looking after his only daughter, Abigail. Eventually Abigail marries, but she dies young of tuberculosis, leaving William a single grandfather looking after his only granddaughter, also named Abigail, who is the protagonist and narrator of the second half of the novel.


In his old age William takes as a lover his black housekeeper, Margaret. The local community of racists accepts matter-of-factly that William's servant is also his concubine—but there's something they don't know.


  • As the Good Book Says...: The title is taken from Ecclesiastes 12:3. "In the days when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves...."
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: As a random aside Abigail tells the story of a cousin of hers named Peter, a diabetic. Peter goes to a faith healer who says Jesus and prayer will protect him, so he throws away his insulin. He dies.
  • Best Served Cold: As she's getting divorced, Abigail finds out that she inherited most of Madison City, through her grandfather. And so she decided to close every business she owns, which are all the main employers in town, and destroy the town's economy. And she makes sure to wait three months, until after the rancor about the scandal has blown over.
    "I had studied over the last month. I knew now what I would do, and though I could have begun, I didn't. I wanted everyone to know for sure what was happening, and who was responsible. I waited and let the time pass slowly."
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  • Burn Baby Burn: At one point William, grieving for his lost wife Lorena, burned all photos of her.
  • Death by Childbirth: William never really does get over the death of his wife Lorena by childbed fever, something that was tragically common enough in the early 20th century.
  • Death of a Child: William's son dies a year after his mother dies in childbirth, and William puts him next to his mother in the tomb.
  • How We Got Here: Starts in the modern day with the younger Abigail fending off a racist mob, then jumps all the way back to the 19th century, recording the history of the Howland family.
  • Indian Burial Ground: When the boll weevil devastates the area's cotton crops, the ignorant yokels of the area blame the weevil on a new construction road, which disturbed an Indian graveyard.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Abigail pours herself "a stiff drink" after an unpleasant confrontation with Margaret's daughter Nina, who it turns out isn't dead after all.
  • Instant Birth: Just Add Water!: Abigail's water breaks, she has exactly three contractions, and then she has her baby.
  • Kissing Cousins: At one point the narration mentions offhandedly that the Howlands have a habit of marrying cousins, not by design, but just by chance.
  • Lady Drunk: Lorena's mother, Mrs. Adams, a minor character who hides gin in the kitchen and makes transparently phony excuses all day to go into the kitchen and swig from her bottle.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: The hypocritical, racist townsfolk of Madison City don't care when William Howland took his black housekeeper as a lover, but when the find out that William and Margaret got married, they get very angry.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: A young Margaret sees the ghost of her great-grandmother right after she died. The ghost tells Margaret to go back to her African blood (Margaret doesn't feel like she fits in, because her father was white).
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: So says Nina, Margaret's daughter and Abigail's aunt of the same age (they were childhood playmates). It turns out that Margaret disowned Nina and said she was dead after Nina married a black man.
  • Switching P.O.V.:
    • Starts with younger Abigail narrating her own story in the present day. Then a long portion of the book tells the history of the Howlands, ending with William Howland. Then the next section is from Margaret's POV. Then the second half of the book goes back to younger Abigail recounting her life and the later history of the family.
    • After Abigail visits Margaret, the ghost of her recently departed grandfather William appears to her and recounts how he and Margaret first met.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: A mob of racists kills younger Abigail's livestock and sets fire to the fence, but Abigail sneaks off when they aren't looking and sets fire to all their cars, and then chases them off with a shotgun.

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