Synopses & Reviews
The folk flavor of her storytelling has earned her constant comparison to Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, but through four collections of short stories and two novels, J. California Cooper has proven that hers is a wholly original talent --one that embraces readers in an ever-widening circle from one book to the next. With In Search Of Satisfaction, Cooper gracefully portrays men and women, some good and others wickedly twisted, caught in their individual thickets of want and need. On a once-grand plantation in Yoville, "a legal town-ship founded by the very rich for their own personal use," a freed slave named Josephus fathers two daughters, Ruth and Yinyang, by two different women. His desire, to give Yinyang and himself money and opportunities, oozes through the family like an elixir, melding with the equally strong yearnings of Yoville's other residents, whose tastes don't complement their neighbors'. What Josephus buries in his life affects generations to come. J. California Cooper's unfettered view of sin, forgiveness, and redemption gives In Search Of Satisfaction a singular richness that belies its universal themes.
Cooper's second novel is an epic saga of three families whose paths intertwine with the devil in their quests for wealth, power and love. The history of the town is inextricably linked to Josephus, a freed slave, and his two dauthers, Ruth and Yinyang. In seeking the legacy left by their father, the sisters pull each other into the vortex of powerful emotion.
Reading Group Guide
1. On the surface, Yoville is community of rigid hierarchies, with sharp divisions between rich and poor, black and white, the powerful and the powerless. What other differences among the members of the community emerge as the novel unfolds? For example, how do religious beliefs and a sense of moral values influence the characters' approaches to life? How do cultural biases passed down from one generation to the next affect the way the characters interact? Which characters defy or overturn the patterns of their families, race, or class? Why are they able to do so?
2. How do the attitudes of Yinyang, Ruth, and Carlene towards men, sex, and money differ? In what ways do they overlap? Are their attitudes shaped by their personal circumstances, or do they reflect the realities of the time and place in which they live? Hosanna is clearly a victim of society's mistreatment of women--especially women of color. Compare and contrast her experiences in the city with Yinyang's. What insights do the choices Hosanna makes even as a young girl give you into her character, and how do they establish the path she follows as an adult? In many ways, the men--Josephus, Joel, Carl Befoe, and Richard Befoe--represent cultural archetypes. How does Cooper bring them to life as individuals? Is she entirely successful?
3. The pursuit of money and material goods and the search for emotional and spiritual satisfaction are the dominant themes of the novel. Are these two goals necessarily contradictory? What needs and desires, if any, do Carlene, Yinyang, Ruth, and Hosanna share?
4. As she weaves together the intricate plot lines of the novel, Cooper interjects commentary from Satan as well as passages reflecting on the morality of the characters' actions. How does this unusual narrative technique affect your experience as a reader? Do these "asides" deepen your understanding of the characters and the themes of the novel, or do you find them unnecessary or intrusive?
5. What do Cooper's novels share with other books, both fiction and nonfiction, that you have read about the Civil War period? Do her descriptions of the relationships between African Americans and whites before and immediately following the war differ from your previous impressions or beliefs? In what ways does Cooper challenge the traditional depiction of the boundaries between slave and master, black and white? Which characters or relationships do you find particularly surprising? Are the white characters as fully developed as the African Americans are?
6. Cooper touches on a wide range of social, economic, and political issues in her writing, including the historical divisions between races and classes; interracial relationships; the significance of complexion in society in general and within the African American community specifically; and the importance of education. What techniques does she use to incorporate these subjects without disrupting the flow of the stories? In what ways can fiction be more effective than nonfiction in revealing the forces that shape our world?
7. In describing Cooper's writing, Alice Walker said, "Her style is deceptively simple and direct and the vale of tears in which her characters reside is never so deep that a rich chuckle at a foolish person's foolishness cannot be heard." How do these traits mirror classic forms of storytelling, from myths and Biblical parables to the folk stories passed down through oral traditions? Why do you think Cooper may have chosen to use these timeless techniques to tell her stories?
In her acclaimed novels and short stories, J. California Cooper portrays the lives of African Americans, bringing to light the impact of history, social and economic hardship, and enduring cultural strengths on the experiences of individuals and families. The questions, discussion topics, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of her works, which range across time and place but share the passion, humor, and wisdom that mark J. California Cooper as one of the most original and engaging storytellers of our time.