The Travelers by Regina Porter
Regina Porter’s debut novel casts a big, wide, engrossing net of an intergenerational family saga. It starts in the 1950s and ends in the Obama era. It follows not one but two parallel clans and sidetracks into unexpected, sometimes obscure branches of their family trees. It travels from the South to Michigan to New York to Normandy to Berlin. It tackles Jim Crow and gentrification and class divides and war and trauma. And it all requires a road map beyond the two-page cast of characters at the novel’s open.
The Travelers opens with sparse, direct writing in the backstory of James Samuel Vincent, who rises out of a challenging childhood to become a well-to-do lawyer, then moves on to the warm embrace of an introduction to the promising student Agnes Miller, and her relationship with Eloise Delaney (which I won’t get into here. No spoilers). This is our first and perhaps strongest example of how Porter flexes a shape-shifting voice to tell different characters’ stories.
Agnes’ story, from her upbringing in a middle-class household in Detroit to a fateful night in the South to raising her family in New York—is one of the pillars holding this novel together. The Man James’ story (as he’s called occasionally) feels more disparate. Perhaps it’s because he has a few marriages thrown in, or because he has a strained relationship with his son…well, one son. One plot point that feels like it could be a diversion to a side character turns out to be much more.
These two families are intertwined, but you’ll have to wait, dear reader, to understand the intricacies of the link, and yes, there are late-coming surprises. Oh, are there. And you’ll have to hold on for some time-traveling as well: The Travelers skips from person to person and era to era with the start of each new chapter. There’s no chronological storytelling here, nor is there any logic, beyond the whims of Porter’s narrative, to how each chapter contributes to the whole.
Some of these chapters—excellent as short stories unto themselves—set up major plot points, while others detour into a thoughtfully drawn character who, in the big picture, is an accessory to an accessory character. The complexity of the connections is true to how things are in real life, to be sure, but it’s a lot to put on the reader. It’s like going to a wedding and finding that you love all of the fascinating new people you’re meeting but have to keep asking your spouse how everyone’s related.
I don’t want to pick too many nits over the sheer sprawl in a novel I’d put in the category of “stunning debut.” The writing is rich, the characters are unforgettable, and the themes—especially the myriad ways Porter tackles racism, subtle and outright, and post-traumatic stress disorder—are capital-I Important right now. But I found myself distracted with searching my memory for how the next new character’s story fit into the tapestry. And that was an unwelcome distraction with a voice with so much creative finesse, and such fine storytelling, when it was compartmentalized.
The Travelers is a tale readers will rightly call ambitious and larger than life, and personally, I’ll be looking for Porter’s next book. And I’ll hope the next one has similarly compelling characters who have powerful stories to tell—but is a more taut read with bolder editing.