‘The House of Eve’ is a stunning historical fiction novel about Black history and two women’s lives

In “The House of Eve,” we read about three years in the lives of two young but very different Black women, Ruby and Eleanor, and we learn great deal about their situations. We also learn not only about life in the early 1950s, but about the abusive and sometimes misogynistic treatment of women in those times before any real emphasis on women’s rights. And that on the ladder of social ills and mistreatment of women, Black women were on the lowest of the rungs. A college student at Howard University, Eleanor learns right at the start of the story, after being denied admittance into the desirable ABC (Alpha Beta Chi) sorority, “that Negroes separated themselves by color.” There is an irony that being Black and attending a Black university did not exempt the students from being subject to cruel prejudice based on the color of their skin. Eleanor’s roommate, Nadine, is from a wealthy Washington, DC family, unlike Eleanor, whose family comes from very modest roots in a small town in Ohio. Eleanor’s parents scraped and saved, and her mother baked and sold pastries to help Eleanor go to Howard University.

The other main character, Ruby, is several years younger than Eleanor and lives in Philadelphia. The two women’s stories are told in alternative narratives with Ruby sharing her story in first person while Eleanor’s story is told from her point of view, but in third person narrative. The difference doesn’t affect how close we feel to each of the characters, but it does make crystal clear which narrative we are reading.

Ruby understands that her mother doesn’t really love her, yet she yearns for that affection. In fact, until she was 13, she lived with the grandmother who raised her. Her mother had gotten pregnant when she was barely a teenager, and Ruby didn’t know Inez was her mother until her grandmother lost her vision—and her ability to care for Ruby—because of glaucoma. Ruby is intelligent, and from 8th grade was allowed into a special program that gave a dozen students special classes and a chance for the top two of them to earn a four-year scholarship to college. Ruby knew that this was her only chance to get ahead in life and not end up like her grandmother and mother, cleaning houses for white people and barely scraping by. Ruby is determined to become an ophthalmologist and help people like her grandmother so they don’t lost their sight. But obstacles like the sweet Jewish white boy, Shimmy, threaten to derail her plans.

As the action moves forward, we get to know both women, and while Ruby’s life definitely seems more challenging than Eleanor’s, we eventually learn that all is not as it appears to be. Eleanor has had her struggles in the past, and even after marrying the scion of a wealthy, distinctive family, she doesn’t feel successful and accepted. At the heart of the story is how women—girls, even—are the ones who suffer from sexual exploitation, sexual violence, and even sexual misadventure. As Johnson shows us what life was like before Roe v. Wade, we see what conservatives refer to when they talk about the “market” for adoptive babies. But both these women, Ruby and Eleanor, are strong and determined to achieve their goals. Each wants to be self-sufficient and feel productive, and a pregnancy means very different things to these two women. And in this, Johnson’s narrative transcends the issue of skin color to explore what pregnancy means to different women at different times in their lives and depending on their circumstances.

The narrative is touching and informative, but also detailed and well-researched. There is a subtle reference to her previous book, “The Yellow Wife,” and a sweet, small twist at the conclusion. The Author’s Note at the end is of particular interest. On these pages, Johnson shares the impetus for writing this book, her grandmother’s story and the real historical people whose situations are mirrored in those of the characters who grace these pages. Johnson especially focuses on those who were forced to give up their babies because of their age, their social status and lack of agency, race, sexual abuse, and coercion.

It is also somewhat stunning to realize that while much has changed since the time in which this novel is set, there is too much that hasn’t. There are a lot of issues –social, historical, and racial — to consider while pondering this lovely and well-written fiction.

Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.