Linden Hills by Gloria Naylor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Linden Hills by Gloria Naylor explores the rise of a Black suburb and how the residents sacrifice so much to live at the lowest elevation to flaunt their wealth.

The community of Linden Hills was created by Luther Nedeed’s “double great-grandfather” who has the same name. The rumor around town is the original Luther Nedeed sold his wife and six children into slavery to get the money to buy the hilly land that nearby White residents found unlivable. But the original Luther Nedeed set out to build a community that lasted generations with the current Luther Nedeed approving all the residents with a contract. If the residents fail to live up to the terms in the contract, then they’re asked to leave the elusive Linden Hills. But residents keep coming to the master-planned community the moment they amass enough money. They also try to get closer to Nedeed’s grand cabin and the funeral parlor he owns. If their home is closer to the man who pulls the strings in town, then they’re considered the most important residents in town as well.

The story follows two twentysomething handymen, Lester and Willie. Lester lives in Linden Hills proper, but on the edge of town in a small home that doesn’t meet the standards of most of the homes in the area. Willie lives outside of Linden Hills with his family in low-income housing. They team up to fulfill jobs around Linden Hills to multiply their money for holiday gifts, with Willie opting to stay with Lester the week leading up to Christmas. But something doesn’t sit well with Willie. He’s noticing the quirks of the average Linden Hills resident.

Willie and Lester work the wedding of the year of Winston Alcott, a rising businessman who feels he must get married to succeed in Linden Hills. Or that’s what Luther Nedeed is telling him. When Willie and Lester listen to Luther Nedeed talk on stage at the wedding, Willie gets a bad feeling about the man who serves as the face of Linden Hills.

The more jobs the handymen do in the span of five days, the more they come across Luther Nedeed. As Luther’s eerie presence marks the scenes where they work, the situations with the residents Willie and Lester are helping seem to worsen. Willie tries to make sense of it as he and his friend witness the ultimate sacrifice residents take to live up to Linden Hills’ expectations.

With chapters split into full days from Dec. 19 to Christmas Eve on Dec. 24, the book becomes unputdownable with easing into the narratives of neighbors weaved together through the eyes of Willie and Lester. We meet characters desperate to keep their economic stature in order to move on up in Linden Hills. The higher on the hill, the higher the respect, but in this case, residents want to move down to the center of the hill where the Nedeed cabin and mortuary sits. They don’t realize they’re physically being dragged downward instead of upward.

The downward pull is supposed to represent hell for these residents. They’ve signed their names to contracts to keep homes until infinity, but if they break any rules, then the contracts are nullified by Luther Nedeed himself. The book adapts the 14th century epic Inferno by poet Dante Alighieri, which depicts nine circles of hell: limbo, lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, heresy, violence, fraud, and treachery. The Linden Hills residents are socially climbing so high that they don’t realize downfall is the only place left to go when the obsession for riches and power overcomes them.

A theme in the book is the absence of women. There are several references to funerals happening in Linden Hills of women and husbands who had lost their wives years prior. We meet Laurel Dumont, a successful woman separated from her husband. She summers in Linden Hills as a child who loves to swim with her grandmother. But the moment Luther Nedeed finds out Laurel’s husband has filed for divorce, he threatens to take away her home because it wasn’t in the contract for her to live in the home without her husband. Also an interwoven perspective is that of Luther Nedeed’s wife, who nobody ever sees because she’s trapped in the basement. Luther Nedeed carries on business in town and lies about his wife’s whereabouts, knowing that nobody will investigate further because of the power he possesses over the town and its residents. He creates a patriarchal society without anyone realizing it because they’re so consumed by their financial worth.

Overall, the novel gives us a chilling look into a fictional Black suburb built on wealth and how residents only care about accumulating more wealth to move closer to the most powerful resident. The characters are blind to their obsession with money and to their worship of Luther Nedeed. Author Gloria Naylor started writing this book for her master’s thesis examining the Black middle class at Yale University under the guidance of Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. Linden Hills is a stark difference from her award-winning debut novel The Women of Brewster Place but maintains the narrative of a community making sense of the socioeconomic elements that went into its creation. The way she describes Linden Hills as a haven for Black residents is in reality a different kind of hell shows the duality of how we see our communities. It could be safe, but your life could be in danger because of other circumstances that you may have overlooked in search of calling a place home.

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