Acts of Forgiveness

A Novel

About the Book

“A vibrant and moving debut that takes to heart our deferred dreams and the value of remaining hopeful.”—Diane Marie Brown, author of Black Candle Women

How much of their lineage is one family willing to unearth in order to participate in the nation’s first federal reparations program?

Every American waits with bated breath to see whether or not the country’s first female president will pass the Forgiveness Act. The bill would allow Black families to claim up to $175,000 if they can prove they are the descendants of slaves, and for ambitious single mother Willie Revel the bill could be a long-awaited form of redemption. A decade ago, Willie gave up her burgeoning journalism career to help run her father’s struggling construction company in Philadelphia and she has reluctantly put family first, without being able to forget who she might have become. Now she’s back living with her parents and her young daughter while trying to keep her family from going into bankruptcy. Could the Forgiveness Act uncover her forgotten roots while also helping save their beloved home and her father’s life’s work?

In order to qualify, she must first prove that the Revels are descended from slaves, but the rest of the family isn’t as eager to dig up the past. Her mother is adopted, her father doesn’t trust the government and believes working with a morally corrupt employer is the better way to save their business, and her daughter is just trying to make it through the fifth grade at her elite private school without attracting unwanted attention. It’s up to Willie to verify their ancestry and save her family—but as she delves into their history, Willie begins to learn just how complicated family and forgiveness can be.

With powerful insight and moving prose, Acts of Forgiveness asks how history shapes who we become and considers the weight of success when it is achieved despite incredible odds—and ultimately what leaving behind a legacy truly means.
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Praise for Acts of Forgiveness

Acts of Forgiveness is a vibrant and moving debut that takes to heart our deferred dreams and the value of remaining hopeful. Cheeks’s layered and tender story allows us to witness a family’s journey as they plant seeds, dig up roots, and bloom, all while they contend with injustices and fight for redemption in the world around them.”—Diane Marie Brown, author of Black Candle Women

“In Acts of Forgiveness, Maura Cheeks extends humanity, depth, hope, and complexity to a part of the American experience that too often gets flattened into talking points. This book is a testament to the power of great fiction to lead us to a better understanding of the truth. A generous and empathetic study of burden and inheritance, consequence and regret, this book and its characters are going to live with me for a long time.”—R. Eric Thomas, bestselling author of Congratulations, The Best Is Over!

Acts of Forgiveness is a striking debut that asks pressing and urgent questions about reckoning with this nation’s history, and what it offers by way of answers is incredibly moving. Cheeks’s ability to render a painful past, an unfixed present, and a hopeful future through the Revels’ hopes and fears is astonishing. This novel grips with intellect and heart.”—Cleyvis Natera, author of Neruda on the Park

Acts of Forgiveness is the rare novel that lays out a hypothetical public policy and its attendant bureaucracy, weaving a story with an imaginative yet realistic exploration of what reparations might look like—what might be missed and what might be achieved. But above all, it is a story about family, with all the challenge, ambiguity, interconnection, obligation, and love the term carries. . . . A generous, thoughtful, and thought-provoking novel about inheritance in all its forms.”—Lydia Kiesling, author of The Golden State

“Engrossing . . . [Maura] Cheeks seamlessly threads the themes of resentment, forgiveness, and legacy through the multilayered narrative. Readers will be moved.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Cheeks’ debut novel seeks to explore the question of ‘whether forgiveness could be political, and, if so, could it last.’ . . . A freshly told, complex family drama with an intriguing premise.”Kirkus Reviews

“Complex family relationship dynamics and hidden histories are elegantly examined in Cheeks’ debut family saga. . . . Cheeks imbues her characters with depth and emotion and tackles the personal and the political with skillful, expressive writing, and the Revel family story is engrossing.”Booklist
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Acts of Forgiveness

Chapter 1

The diner was full of people who wanted to be around others the day the Forgiveness Act passed the House. The proximity to precedent felt good. There was no danger, no history yet, per se, no need to stop routine completely, so it was enough to sit in the old diner at the blue-­speckled tables with scrambled eggs and large steaming mugs of coffee. Enough to ask the person next to you to pass the ketchup and also whether they thought this would go anywhere. “Not in my day” was often the answer. Enough monotony rubbed off of a dreary fall day for neighbors to linger and comment that Forgiveness would never pass the Senate, as the anchor announced the House’s intention to vote on it in the evening. The country, the city, the diner—­connected by the same wavering thread of expectation.

As Willie hurried in, she took up her usual stool beneath the television and tried to look optimistic, but she had imagined when a moment like this one came she would be sharing the news not watching it. Writing about representatives wrangling last-­minute votes, what families needed to do to prepare for its passage—­not sitting, as she was now, thirty-­four years old in the same town where she was raised. Most days she successfully calmed the disquiet, but today she couldn’t help it and picked silently at her life choices like they were scabs.

Vice president . . . at her father’s construction company.

Mother to a precocious daughter . . . from a one-­night stand.

Loving parents . . . whom she lives with.

The second half of those ellipses ruined the mirage.

For a long time, she was buoyed by the belief that change was around the corner, and now that it was here, she realized she should have been more specific in her faith. The Forgiveness Act, for many reasons, threw this into sharp relief.

A waitress arched her back against the counter and pointed the remote at the television, inching the president’s voice up several decibels. Everyone in the diner talked over one another, and it was possible to hear both the din of the restaurant as one throbbing sound and the individual pieces of conversation. The men next to Willie threw their voices at the screen as though President Johnson stood ready to take their orders from behind the bar.

“Fifty bucks she’s on here tomorrow saying the House delayed the vote.”

“It doesn’t work like that.”

“How do you know how it works?”

“At least she’s not using war as an excuse.”

The man to Willie’s right, whose bald head glistened underneath the harsh fluorescent lights, jabbed his knife at the screen. “She’s alright. I’d let her forgive me.”

“What are you even talking about?”

“I’m talking about her priorities and how they’re on straight. They keep killing us, and while everyone else wants to pause and look abroad, she’s trying to start fixing what’s broken.”

Willie squirmed in her chair, sighing, and they turned to look in her direction. “Well, what do you think?”

“I think Johnson’s alright.” She took a sip of coffee and continued staring at the television, unable to tell them that she’d expected to feel a sense of release, or excitement, that hadn’t yet arrived.

The men shook their heads and exchanged glances that managed to lament the state of all young people of Willie’s generation.

Suffice it to say that it is not whether we, as a country, should make amends, President Johnson continued. It is that despite the fact nothing can ever atone for the injustices, we should still try. With approximately forty million Black Americans in the United States today, the amount owed to each African American with an enslaved ancestor is $175,000 per person. This amount will help us begin to close the racial wealth gap in our country.

An angry grunt escaped from the gray-­haired man to Willie’s left. “Doris, can you turn this down? Not all of us want to listen to this Forgiveness shit.”

The mood shifted as the men at the other end of the counter looked at one another, now lamenting certain white people of their own generation. A young mother who had been watching the screen expectantly turned back to her toddler.

Doris ignored him and looked at Willie. “When is your mother coming in? I need to talk to her.”

For a moment Willie stared at Doris, whose eyes reflected the concern of someone who still saw her only as a child. “I’m not sure,” she replied, shifting again on her stool.

“Tell her I want to talk to her. See, there’s this—­”

Willie, clipping a ten-­dollar bill on top of her check, cut Doris off by saying she had to get to work. Waving goodbye, she stepped out into the thick September air to begin her short walk to the office. The sky was devoid of clouds, stamped instead with the faded color of worn-­out leaves. The familiarity of her surroundings made her a stranger to herself. Rather than Forgiveness allowing her to put a name to her anxiety, as national events tended to do, it instead confused her senses.

Years ago, she had been told that the point of a family business was to be in control of your own destiny. For Willie, it had meant the opposite. The business that her father created out of dust and broken promises slowly rose to suffocate her even as it gave her life, gave her family certain freedoms.

Her father made her mother believe it. And then her mother made her believe. The business became bigger than itself even as it was their lifeblood. And there was nothing to do with outsize false hope except continue to believe. So believe she did, because there was no other choice. What right did she have to help white people write about art and politics and books when her family needed her? It was one thing to feel like your sacrifices were worth it but another to feel like you sacrificed for nothing. Was it possible to be a good person if you were always resenting the sacrifices you made to be good? Maybe part of her never lost the belief that Max’s work was more than a paycheck. She had wanted to believe it was true.

At work, as she stared out of a window in her office, she saw not the trees outside or the train station across the street but the man on the other end of the phone line, his thumb hooked through his belt loop, impatient to end the conversation, and wondered if he could hear the anxious rattle in her voice. She did her best to sound resolute, knowing the key to making someone think they had to pay was making them think she’d never give in.

“Patrick. Patrick,” she repeated. “The payment was due a month ago.”

“I can’t give you a better answer than the one I already gave you.”

“Which wasn’t an answer.”

“It’s the best I can do until I know more on my end.”

She walked over to sit at her desk, fingering the professional symbolism of her small diamond studs, and bit her tongue—­if not the best journalism technique Alfie Cane ever taught her, at least the most useful.

“Look,” Patrick finally sighed. “There’s a holdup with the FTC, okay? There are some concerns that our latest acquisition is going to be blocked.”

Willie raised her head and looked out the window. “And what happens if they block the acquisition?”

“We pause construction. Probably try to find a buyer for the lot.”

“The kill fee is $175,000.” The irony of the amount made a bitter laugh whisper through her throat.

“Ms. Revel. Willie. We wouldn’t be killing the project; the government would be. Either way, we should know more next week.”

Her chest constricted unceremoniously. They were never going to get this money.

“Your late fees are still accruing, whether you pay the kill fee or not. Let me know where things stand as soon as you can.” Before she could catch herself, she told him to have a good weekend.

She watched as a train pulled slowly into the station across the street. It opened its doors as if yawning, not letting anyone but the ticket agents off. At this time of day, people were preparing to go into the city, not return from it. She watched the commuters on the platform playing Friday’s rhythm, their bodies relaxed with the weekend’s promise of respite ahead. A man waiting to board the train patted his jacket pocket and then jogged back to his car. Two women wearing pencil skirts and sneakers gripped large tote bags on their shoulders like workplace barbies. Commuters coming from comfortable lives who would return to houses filled with children, fridges filled with food. Houses similar to 512 Lewaro Street in their outward façade and dissimilar in the ways all houses are dissimilar because of the people inside them. The train filled slowly with passengers, and Willie kept her eyes on the ticket agents, who laughed at something on their phones. She was embarrassed by the quick flash of jealousy that pierced her.

About the Author

Maura Cheeks
Maura Cheeks has published writing in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, and Tin House, among others. In 2019, she was awarded a masthead reporting residency with The Atlantic where she produced the feature-length article that would later inspire the idea for this book. Acts of Forgiveness is her first novel. More by Maura Cheeks
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