Jennifer Neal’s short story, “In Search of Better Skies”, was published in The Willowherb Review in 2019 and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. In it, Neal’s narrator describes the major movements of her grandfather’s life. Through her telling, readers follow him from his oppressive home town of Woodland in Georgia, to his journey to fight with the Allies in France in World War II, and on in his trajectory from Georgia to a new home in Florida upon his post-war return to a US still rife with racial inequality.
The evocation of space is almost mesmerizing in this piece, which offers up a very particular sense of its two American settings. Neal’s rendition is permeated by an acute sense of history, and especially the histories of racial injustice whose legacies live on in the country and the environment she describes. In her writing, these histories seem to be embedded in the land, leaving traces still discernible.
“Georgia is often thought of as a calm, relaxed place, where both people and sun-brewed tea are dark and sweet like maple sap. But for my grandfather, it was a place brimming with hostility that threatened to spill over at any moment, unleashing the worst in an environment historically regulated by the strict tenants of vicious racial hierarchies and the sinister hum of routine. But the sky wasn’t the only thing that violently stretched out of place every now and then, throwing the entire strip of land into disorder. The people were equally as capable of terrifying and lawless things. But my grandfather was convinced that it was the terrain that possessed them with the malevolence to do so. Not the other way around.”
Nonetheless, as starkly aware of this ‘malevolence’ as the short story is, it leaves an impression of something like hope, born of the grandfather’s journey in search of those eponymous better skies.