Promise

Written by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Review by Sarah Johnson

A searing account of how racism reaches its long arm into all corners of American life, Griffiths’ first novel also honors the love cradled within Black families and how it grants them inner strength and the power of defiance. Promise opens with glorious scenes of a late summer idyll in coastal New England in 1957. It’s the day before school begins in Salt Point, Maine, and Hyacinth “Cinthy” Kindred and her sister Ezra, thirteen and fifteen, are becoming young women, which their devoted parents, Heron and Lena, realize will make the world look at them differently. Ezra’s best friend Ruby Scaggs, a poor white neighbor whose father beats her, refuses to acknowledge their differences, but Ezra knows their closeness will soon run its course. The world is too much with them.

Within a week, life turns threatening. Cinthy’s favorite teacher commits suicide and is replaced by a snooty bigot. Ruby makes an unforgiveable mistake. The Kindreds’ good friends, the Junketts – the only other Black family nearby – are terrorized by a white police deputy. President Eisenhower has just signed the Civil Rights Act, and repercussions bubble forth. Realizing he can no longer shelter his daughters as he’d prefer, Heron reveals the personal and ancestral tragedies that spurred his move from Delaware to the isolated north, a supposedly safer place. Cinthy and Ezra must decide how to react to it all.

Promise holds nothing back in terms of circumstance, language, and emotion, creating a hard-hitting read that compels with its fully fleshed-out characters: Black and white, old and young. Griffiths’ background as a multi-published poet shows in many quote-worthy lines (“To claim herself was the sweetest and most dangerous theft”), and the ending, full of sadness and triumph, sings like an invocation. An assured debut about generational trauma, finding home, and the importance of nourishing joy.