This chapter returns to the story of True Belle, Violet’s grandmother, who returned from Baltimore in 1888 to Vesper County, Virginia, to look after her daughter Rose Dear and grandchildren, aged between four and fourteen. Violet was twelve. The family had lost their home and were living in an abandoned shack. Rose Dear’s husband, who had signed papers authorizing the repossession of their home, had just given up and left. True Belle remained in Vesper County for eleven years, keeping the family together and enthralling Violet with her stories about her life in Baltimore with the wealthy Vera Louise Gray, her white employer, and her son, Golden Gray.
Vera Louise told her neighbors and friends that she had brought her servant and an orphaned baby to Baltimore to “experience a more sophisticated way of living” (p. 139) than was available in Vesper County, where Vera Louise had been born.
Vera Louise and True Belle adore Golden Gray, who looks white, with a golden tone to his skin, and spoil him. True Belle knew the story of his birth. His father was a young black man that Vera Louise would often go riding with. He did not know that he had made Vera Louise pregnant. And when her father, Colonel Wordsworth Gray found out, he was furious and slapped her to the floor. Disgusted with her, he gave her money to go away. She took the baby and True Belle, who was then a slave, with her. True Belle was twenty-seven years old at the time, and she was leaving her family behind. She stayed for twenty-two years, then returned to vesper County and entertained her grandchildren with tales of Golden Gray, who rode off from the family home when he was eighteen, and True Belle never saw him again.
The narrator then takes up the story of what happened to Golden Gray, who only learned from his mother when he was eighteen that his father was black. He sets off in horse and carriage to find his father. Filled with anger, he wants to kill him. It is August and raining hard as he nears his destination. He sees a naked black woman in the midst of some trees. She is covered with mud and has leaves in her hair. She runs when she sees Golden Gray but hits her head against a tree and is knocked out.
At first Golden Gray wants to ignore the woman and drive on, but he feels a bit ashamed of that thought and goes over to her. He notes she is pregnant and thinks she is dead, but then he sees her stomach move. He thinks a second time about moving on, but then he changes his mind and throws a coat over her and carries her to the carriage. He is careful not to let her dirty his fine clothes. He heads toward a house just outside of Vienna where his father lives, following a map that True Belle drew for him. He notes the woman is still breathing.
He reaches the house, puts the horse in a stall at back, and carries his trunk into the house. No one is at home. He then brings the woman in, covering her with a green dress he finds in a box. He makes a fire and waits for Henry Lestory, his father, to return. He knows his father has a reputation as a tracker but nothing else about him. He wants to tell his father a story about how honorable he has been, how he saved the life of this “wild” girl, even though it involved ruining his fine clothes. He wants to boast of what he has done, even though in truth he is not doing as much as he could do for the girl.
A black boy on a mule comes to the house. Thinking that Golden Gray is a white man, and noting also that he has been drinking, the boy speaks to him with respect. The boy confirms that the house belongs to Henry Lestory and that Henry will be back any day now. He goes to the back to check on Henry’s stock.
Golden Gray changes into formal clothes to await Henry’s return. As he waits, he feels for the first time that he misses having a father. He does not need one now, but he wants to get some idea of what it might have been like to have one.
The thirteen-year-old black boy (whose name later turns out to be Honor) sees the woman lying on a cot covered by the green dress and tries to give her some water. She is still unconscious. The boy cleans the blood off her face.
This chapter elaborates on the story of True Belle and also introduces two characters who up to now have only been briefly alluded to. These are Vera Louise Gray and Golden Grey, and their story introduces themes related to sexual relationships between blacks and whites, and their mixed race offspring. Morrison’s approach to this question is an unusual one. It was far more common in those days of slavery for a white slave master to take advantage of one of his female slaves, but in Jazz, the white person involved is a woman, Vera Louise, who freely chooses to have a sexual relationship with a young black man. The only reason she decides to keep the baby is because of the child’s golden skin tone, which she loves. Golden Gray is raised in affluence and assumes he is white, since Vera Louise tells him nothing of his father.
Vera Louise is the only white character depicted in the novel in any depth. Unlike the black characters, she has inherited wealth and privilege. She seems not to be adversely affected by her father’s decision to throw her out of the family home due to her pregnancy, and she establishes a life for herself in Baltimore. She appears to feel no desire to marry, and she and True Belle raise Golden Gray together, although of course they are not exactly equal partners. Nonetheless, it is an unusual family structure for the period in which it takes place, and represents a new angle on the theme of absent fathers. On the surface level, growing up with wealth and fine clothes and plenty of adoring female attention, Golden Gray does not suffer from his lack of a father. However, as is revealed when he travels to see his father for the first time, he is suddenly aware of what the absence of a father has cost him. In a vivid image, he compares it to having an arm severed: “The crunch of bone when it is sundered, the sliced flesh and the tubes of blood cut through, shocking the blood run and disturbing the nerves” (p. 158).
Golden Gray now must face the situation not only of meeting his father for the first time but also of reconciling himself to his mixed-race heritage. This is not going to come easily for him. When he sees the naked, wild-looking black woman, it is as if his black heritage, of which he knew nothing about only a week earlier, is suddenly confronting him. He wants to walk away but cannot, his memory of True Belle, a black woman whom he loves, mitigating his disgust somewhat.
Thirteen years have elapsed. Henry Lestory, who turns out to be the man known as Hunters Hunter, named the pregnant woman Wild. She gave birth to a son but she never became domesticated. She still lives outside in all weathers, true to the name he gave her. People in the neighborhood say it is harmful to encounter her, and they tell their children about her as a cautionary tale.
The narrative then flashes back to the time when Henry returned and found Honor tending to the pregnant woman, and Golden Gray. He and Golden Gray stare at each other. Henry is disconcerted to see that the stranger has helped himself to some cane-liquor. Golden Gray suddenly addresses him as “Daddy,” and he is of course shocked. Then Wild delivers her baby. As Henry tends to her she bites him on the cheek.
After the birth, Golden Gray explains more to Henry. Henry had no idea that Vera Louise had born his son, and said he has not thought about her or wondered where she was. He asks what Golden Gray wants with him. He says that Golden Gray is welcome to stay but not if he has just come to chastise his father. Then he suggests that Golden Gray only came to see how black his father was. He adds that he has to choose whether to be white or black, and if he chooses black, he must act like a man and not give him any “whiteboy sass” (p. 173). Angry, Golden Gray wants to shoot him, but decides to wait until the next day. But the presence of the woman, for some unstated reason, allows him to change his mind.
Thirteen years later, Joe (who is Wild’s son) and his foster brother Victory abandons Vienna when it burns. Henry (Hunter) decides to stay where he is. Wild’s fate is unknown.
Joe and Victory find work elsewhere and eventually, some years later, move on to pick cotton near Palestine. But before he does this, he goes back three times to Vienna, trying to find Wild, whom he believes is his mother. Hunters Hunter has never told him this directly, but he hints at it, and Joe understands what he means. He looks for Wild in the woods, senses her presence, but does not find her.
Much later, in 1926, Joe wonders what happened to Hunter, whether he stayed near Vienna after the fire. Perhaps, Joe thinks, he may have made his way to Wordsworth, where Vera Louise was from and where Hunter was originally a slave.
Joe thinks of these things as he sets out to find Dorcas. He is armed, but he is not thinking about killing her, thinks he has no intention of harming her. It is January 1, 1926. He takes a train and gets out at the stop where he needs to if he is to find her. He is convinced she will be alone, not with one of the “young roosters” who will not treat her right.
The narrative switches back to his search for Wild, all those years ago. He finds a boulder, behind which is an opening obviously created by a human. He enters it and eventually finds himself in a stone where there is the smell of cooking oil.
Back in 1926, as he searches for Dorcas, he again thinks that she will be alone and that she will turn to him, glad that he has found her.
Another narrative switch in the final paragraph goes back to Joe as he enters Wild’s lair. He finds the green dress that had covered her, a rocking chair, baskets and pots, a place to cook, a photograph, a pair of man’s trousers and a silk shirt (presumably belonging to Golden Gray). But Wild herself is nowhere to be seen.
This chapter revolves around one man’s search for his father, and another man’s search for his mother.
Golden Gray has been raised as a pampered white boy; he knows nothing of his black heritage, and his journey in the rain to Virginia, his encounter with the wild black woman and with Hunters Hunter are tremendous shocks of awakening to the other half of his heritage. The emphasis placed on his unwillingness to have his nice, expensive clothes muddied by contact with the black woman is comment enough on how far he has to go to accept the totality of his heritage. He has been raised in luxury but also in ignorance of his own nature. The crucial moments are the two occasions when his first thought is to leave the black woman to her fate. But he decides not to—more for the sake of appearances than anything else, but his actions do mean that Joe Trace has his chance of coming into the world and surviving.
Wild is the ultimate example of the marginalized black person. Her history, what made her unsocialized, living outside on her own terms, is never stated. However, she is not to be pitied. She is a symbol of a wild independence, an absolute refusal to live on any terms other than her own, and in that sense she is a strong figure. In the stone room she constructs for herself there is a feeling of peace; she has managed to assemble all that she needs to survive.
The interweaving in the narrative of Joe’s search for his mother and his search many years later for Dorcas shows the hole in his psyche where love and security should be, and perhaps would have been had he known Wild the way a son should know his mother. The fracturing of family relationships—in Joe’s case the fact that he did not know either his father or his mother—is part of the cause of the tragedy that unfolds many years later, when Joe cannot bear Dorcas’s betrayal of him. His search for Dorcas and his search for his mother seem to run together in his mind.