“American history comes to vivid, engaging life in this tale of two interconnected families (one white, one black) that spans from the 1950s to Barack Obama’s first year as president. . . . The complex, beautifully drawn characters are unique and indelible.”—Entertainment Weekly
“An astoundingly audacious debut.”—O: The Oprah Magazine • “A gorgeous generational saga.”—New York Post
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY ESQUIRE • FINALIST FOR THE PEN/HEMINGWAY AWARD FOR DEBUT NOVEL
Meet James Samuel Vincent, an affluent Manhattan attorney who shirks his modest Irish American background but hews to his father’s meandering ways. James muddles through a topsy-turvy relationship with his son, Rufus, which is further complicated when Rufus marries Claudia Christie.
Claudia’s mother—Agnes Miller Christie—is a beautiful African American woman who survives a chance encounter on a Georgia road that propels her into a new life in the Bronx. Soon after, her husband, Eddie Christie, is called to duty on an air craft carrier in Vietnam, where Tom Stoppard’s play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” becomes Eddie’s life anchor, as he grapples with mounting racial tensions on the ship and counts the days until he will see Agnes again.
These unforgettable characters’ lives intersect with a cast of lovers and friends—the unapologetic black lesbian who finds her groove in 1970s Berlin; a moving man stranded in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, during a Thanksgiving storm; two half-brothers who meet as adults in a crayon factory; and a Coney Island waitress whose Prince Charming is too good to be true.
With piercing humor, exacting dialogue, and a beautiful sense of place, Regina Porter’s debut is both an intimate family portrait and a sweeping exploration of what it means to be American today.
Praise for The Travelers
“[A] kaleidoscopic début . . . Porter deftly skips back and forth through the decades, sometimes summarizing a life in a few paragraphs, sometimes spending pages on one conversation. As one character observes, ‘We move in circles in this life.’” —The New Yorker
“Porter’s electric debut is a sprawling saga that follows two interconnected American families. . . . Readers will certainly be drawn in by Porter’s sharp writing and kept hooked by the black-and-white photographs interspersed throughout the book, which give faces to the evocative voices.”—Booklist
About the Author
Regina Porter is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow and recipient of a 2017-2018 Rae Armour West Postgraduate Scholarship. She is also a 2017 Tin House Summer Workshop Scholar. Her fiction has been published in The Harvard Review. An award-winning writer with a background in playwriting, Porter has worked with Playwrights Horizons, the Joseph Papp Theater, New York Stage and Film, the Women's Project, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and Horizon Theatre Company. She has been anthologized in Plays from Woolly Mammoth by Broadway Play Services and Heinemann's Scenes for Women by Women. She has also been profiled in Southern Women Playwrights: New Essays in History and Criticism from the University of Alabama Press. Porter was born in Savannah, Georgia, and lives in Brooklyn.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: Pass It On
When the boy was four, he asked his father why people needed sleep. His father said, “So God could un-f*** all the things people f*** up.”
When the boy was twelve, he asked his mother why his father had left. The mother said, “So he could f*** anything that moves.”
When the boy was thirteen, he wanted to know why his father was back in their house again. His mother told him, “At forty-one, I can’t be bothered to go out and find anyone to f***.”
At fourteen, when profanity seemed to roll off his friends’ tongues like water down a leaky pipe, the word f*** held no allure for the boy. None. What. So. Ever.
At eighteen, the boy (Jimmy Vincent, Jr.) left his hometown of Huntington, Long Island, to attend the University of Michigan. Jimmy was, by all accounts, a very good student and handsome to the point of distraction. He could have had any girl he wanted, but as these things often go, he pivoted toward a wonderfully plain girl named Alice. Jimmy convinced himself that he loved Alice, and the two freshmen enjoyed tipsy, acrobatic sex. Delighted by her good fortune, Alice would hug Jimmy close to her with gratitude and say, “Oh God. Oh, me. Me? f***, f***, f***.”
After Michigan, Jimmy returned to the East Coast. He landed a job as a paralegal at a white-shoe law firm and met a tall New England girl. Jane was a medical student who could pass for a runway model. She didn’t talk dirty and people stared whenever they entered a room. Here was a girl Jimmy might have not only married but loved, even at the tender age of twenty-two. He took Jane to his parents’ house on Christmas Eve, which also happened to be the anniversary of their first year as a couple.
After a lovely dinner that Jimmy’s mother had spent all day preparing from her favorite cookbook, Jimmy’s father strolled into the living room and sat between Jimmy and Jane. He sipped Madeira port and reminisced about his childhood in rural Maine. “A hot potato will heal a stye. A raw potato under the arms works better than deodorant. Put a potato in your shoe and kiss a cold good-bye. That’s the farm boy’s dictionary right there. I left one row of potato fields for another. Long Island used to be full of potatoes, if you didn’t know.” When Jane dipped into the kitchen to check in on Jimmy’s mother, his father turned to him and said, “Son, are you blasting that? Hold on to that. Don’t f*** that up. Jimmy boy, what I could do with that.” Jimmy, who had always been called Jimmy Jr., decided instantly that he preferred the name James. When James was admitted to Columbia Law School, he drifted away from Jane.
Nancy Vincent’s Christmas Menu
Merrie Roast of Beef, Roast Potatoes, French-Fried Onion Rings, Broccoli with Easy Hollandaise, Salad Apple Rings, Broccoli with Easy Hollandaise, Salad Apple Rights, Brown-and-Serve Fantans, Candle Cake, Hot Coffee, Mugs of Milk
—Better Homes and Gardens: Special Occasions
(New York: Meredith Press, 1959).
When James was thirty-one, he made partner at his firm. He was wealthy, though not shockingly rich. James had seen heart attacks give two partners, not much older than him, the old heave-ho, so he carved out time to travel at home and abroad. It was his pleasure to date an impressive array of women. He married a pretty Middlebury girl not far from her college on a rolling blueberry hill in Vermont. James and Sigrid bought a three-bedroom apartment overlooking Central Park. His lovely wife had one flaw, a scar on her nose, a gift from a random stranger who had knocked Sigrid off her pink Schwinn bike while she was cycling with her parents in Prospect Park. “Move the f*** out the way,” the spandexed stranger had said, zipping past her on suede roller skates. This story seemed somehow prophetic to James. He loved Sigrid as much as she loved him. Sigrid gave good laughter. They had one son. They named him Rufus. And called him Ruff. Sigrid told James she would have no more. After a one-year leave of absence, Sigrid returned to her career as a copyeditor.
When he was forty, nothing stirred in James. He had read somewhere that people in their forties were miserable, but James was content to take his Ruff to baseball games at Yankee Stadium and to put the dull but profitable work of the office on hold from Friday to Monday. He found himself teaching at his alma mater, Columbia, and liking it more than the practice of law.
When he was forty-two, everything stirred in James—especially after he saw his elderly father interred in a family grave in Cabot, Maine. A colleague from the law firm pulled James aside before the funeral and said, “You’re lucky you got to know your dad as a grown man. Not all of us make it to eighty-one.” James wanted to say, f*** you. I didn’t know my dad at all. Instead, he said, “Thank you for traveling to Maine. Thank you so much.”
When James was forty-five, Sigrid told him she spent too much time alone in their apartment and she required a change. They were on their annual trip to Vermont, a few yards from the blueberry hill ski resort where he had first proposed to her. It proved a lackluster weekend. James consulted the same colleague who had attended his father’s funeral. “Menopause is a problem,” his colleague said. “Time to trade her in.” James thought this seemed a bit premature and asked his mother to weigh in. She sent James a recipe from Better Homes and Gardens. Over a plate of homemade mushroom risotto that he had spent most of the afternoon preparing, James told Sigrid, “The change of life can be your enemy or it can be your best friend.” Sigrid took their son, Rufus, and moved across the country to a Spanish-style apartment in Los Angeles. These days, she jogs most mornings on the beach and drinks Sapporo beer in the evening with her boyfriend.
When James was fifty and sleeping with Akemi, his much-younger Japanese assistant, Rufus called crying from Venice Beach. “Dad, some serious shit just went down. Would you come to L.A. and get me, please?” James was not prepared for his son’s bad news. He hung up on Rufus, but not before telling him, “I’m sorry, Ruff, but I’m trying to sleep—so I can unf*** all the things that God has f***ed up.” Akemi, which means “great beauty” in Japanese, watched James reach for the V&T pizza box on the nightstand. She noticed that he had taken to snacking in bed lately. She pulled the covers over her shoulders and would not pretend to love him. “You don’t know how to grow old here.” James told her he needed some time alone. And when Akemi left, he called Rufus.
When James was fifty-eight and happily married to fifty-six-year-old Adele, whom he loved because neither of them needed to talk much, he went to visit his aged mother at the retirement facility she now called home. His mother had white hair and white dentures and he was astonished by how vibrant her fake smile was. He had never told his mother that she was beautiful. She was the kind of woman who wouldn’t have appreciated the compliment. “How are you doing, Mom?”
His mother looked at him and said, “Enough is enough.” This statement struck James as necessary but oblique. He wondered if she was thinking about checking out. It was a coward’s way, but one he would never rule out himself. She gestured toward an old man in a shabby silk bathrobe two tables down. The old turtle was thick in conversation with a plump middle-aged female visitor who might have been his daughter or a much-younger wife. “I can’t get any peace. That old geezer is always hitting on me.”
“You still got it going on, Mom,” James said. His mother smiled and pinched his cheek. It wasn’t the same as telling her she was beautiful. But enough was enough. She pushed her chair back and told James she looked forward to seeing him the following Sunday.
When James was sixty and his Rufus, now married for several years and with twins of his own, called to ask, “How do I keep my marriage together, Dad?” James told him simply, “By not getting a divorce.” Rufus had married a black woman named Claudia Christie, which meant that James’s grandchildren, Elijah and Winona, were multiracial, biracial, part black. Everywhere James went in Manhattan, there were half-and-halves. He had once made the mistake of using the term mulatto. Rufus took him aside and explained to James that the word was verboten. Say it again and he would see his grandkids nevermore. Still, when James walked down the street with Elijah and Winona, his feelings were as mixed as their skin. “They are so stunning,” people would say. But they don’t look the first thing like me, he confessed to Adele.
Reading Group Guide
‘History surrounds us. Evidence of how we came into being, mutated, had children.’ p. 198
1. In the seven-page opening of The Travelers, “Pass It On,” Regina Porter swiftly runs through six decades in the life of one of the novel’s central characters: “the man” James Samuel Vincent, Jr. Throughout the rest of the book, however, the author adds layers and texture to her characters by delving into their family histories and the intergenerational traumas that travel through time and country. With reference to specific moments in the text, how did Porter capture the specificities of place and time in the many different eras and locations of this book? Did you feel that you gradually gained a greater sense of understanding for individual characters as you learned more about their origins and the experiences of their family members?
2. The Travelers does not follow a linear narrative, but jumps back and forth in time and between the perspectives of different characters. How did this affect your reading experience?
3. Regina Porter’s writing has a strong focus on causality, or how certain events and choices have life-altering effects on individuals. For example, if Agnes Miller had married Claude Johnson instead of Eddie Christie, an entirely different cast of characters would have existed in The Travelers. What other examples of cause and effect can you pull from the novel, and how do you think things would have turned out differently had these instances not occurred?
4. How does this book convey the ways in which human beings are shaped and altered by their encounters and relationships with one another? You might choose to discuss, for example, how children are influenced by their parents or how certain characters are motivated to differentiate themselves from those of previous generations.
5. Did this novel remind you of any “great” books of the American literary tradition? How might The Travelers cast light on or add complexity to themes that have traditionally been overlooked in the American canon, such as homosexual and interracial relationships? Did reading this book in any way challenge your view of the ways in which certain social and political issues have, in the past, been represented or painted-over in mainstream literature and other art forms?
6. The literature of William Shakespeare is of deep significance for several characters in The Travelers. For example, Sister Mary Laranski proclaims to her pupils that “a life without Shakespeare is no life at all,” (p. 150) while Eddie Christie finds relief in reciting passages from Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Eddie’s daughter, Claudia, becomes a Shakespeare scholar. Why do you think the appreciation of Shakespeare has endured through centuries and into the present day, and how is it relevant to this novel?
7. Much like even the most tragic Shakespearean dramas, The Travelers is interspersed with many moments of comic relief. How do you see Porter’s characters retain a sense of humor even during times of intense sadness? What for you were the funniest moments in the book?
8. Agnes and Eddie each carry unspeakable traumas with them through most of their lives. How do memories of traumatic events manifest in their behavior over the years?
9. Although Charles Camphor discourages his son Hank’s friendship with the Applewoods, a neighboring black family, he displays profound generosity for Jerome Jenkins, “the only black boy in Hank’s grade at Sunset Beach School.” (p. 107) Given the contempt Charles seems to have for the Applewoods, why do you think he extends such kindness to Jerome?
10. Before Eloise Delaney travels to Texas to train for the Women’s Air Force, she is cautioned by her friend and lover, Flora Applewood: “Look but don’t touch, Eloise. And if you do touch, touch at your own risk: a homespun precursor to Don’t ask, don’t tell.” (p. 170)
Did you notice any other precursors in The Travelers to present-day social and political issues in America? You might discuss LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter, or other social justice movements.
11. Adele Pransky’s children noticed that their father Yan, “never mentioned his mother or his family or anything about his childhood. And he bristled if they or Adele inquired or asked. The siblings did not know what was more unnerving: that they had to live with Yan or that he had no past.” (p. 226)
Thinking back to your answers to Question 1, do you think it is more difficult to have empathy for Yan than for other characters, having learned no concrete details about his dark past?
12. Fire and water are recurring motifs in The Travelers, particularly in the form of burning houses or in characters’ fears of death by drowning. The elements air and earth similarly recur, seen in Eloise’s affinity for flight and in Rufus’s connection to the land through his Joycean scholarship (for, as his father mentions, “Joyce is land” [p. 256]). Where else did you notice the four elements crop up in the novel? What do you think they represent in the context of its narrative?
13. When Claudia seeks marriage advice from her mother, Adele is baffled by the question of “loving someone enough instead of loving him, or her, in the moment and sticking to the truth of that love because you never knew which day would be your last.” (p. 285)
Did The Travelers prompt you to question your understandings and definitions of love and marriage? How does this novel convey that love, or the love one might have for a partner or family member, is not static, but fluid or malleable, taking different forms at different moments in time?
14. Consider the final passage of The Travelers, in which Agnes Christie re-encounters one of the men from that definitive night on Damascus Road:
“The former officer William Byrd brought over the pecan pie, favoring his limp leg. Agnes shut her eyes and clutched Beverly and Claudia’s hands tighter than she had when they were crossing the street as kids. She waited a second before she opened them. The former officer William Byrd had retreated into the kitchen. ‘I am glad you came to see after me, girls. I’m glad you brought the kids.’ And then Agnes smiled and batted her long lashes at them. She might have been young again, in her prime: so many lives and selves in one body.
‘Pecan pie is entirely too sweet for me. But you all enjoy it. We’re here. Dig in.’”
What thoughts and emotions might Agnes have grappled with internally when she saw William Byrd, and how do you think she managed to keep her composure? What do you think is the meaning of the line “so many lives and selves in one body”?
15. As a piece of literature, The Travelers illuminates ideologically entrenched prejudices in America from 1946 to 2010, shortly after the election of Barack Obama, the first black man to become President of the United States. Years after the periods in which The Travelers is set, it has often been claimed that the people of America have become more divided than ever. Would you agree with such a statement? In your answer, you should try to explain why you think society has continued to move toward intersectional equality, or why you think it has regressed into further intolerances and divisions. Why do you think this has happened and what do you think is the way forward from here?