Monday, May 24, 2010

The Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin

It’s not that I didn’t remember what I saw. It’s that I didn’t know what I was seeing.” It’s 1963 in Mississippi, and Florence is ten years old, almost eleven. Although the above quote refers to a particularly horrible and devastating event that Florence witnessed, it could be used as a description of almost everything that happened to her in that summer of her life. Florence is the eyes and ears of Minrose Gwin in her novel, The Queen of Palmyra; it is a wrenchingly sad novel, but then it is about events that are, indeed, wrenchingly sad.

A few months ago I reviewed another novel about this same time period in Mississippi, and I felt a great deal of ambivalence about that novel; it was Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help. In that novel, a well-off young woman who aspires to being a writer decides to write a book about African American servants as seen through the eyes of those women in order to expose what they really thought about their white employers. What bothered me about that novel was that the heroine, the woman writer,  gets those servants to take grave risks by telling their stories, while she, herself, incurs very little risk, but stands to profit by the risks of others. And while Stockett is once removed from the writer heroine of her story, she, too, it seemed to me, stood to profit from the pain and struggles of others while incurring little risk on her own. I would have felt much more comfortable had the author been African American—more comfortable with the heavy dialects she uses for the voices of some of her characters, more comfortable with her (perhaps audacious and presumptuous) descriptions of their inner lives.

I have none of those reservations about Gwin’s novel, because this book is so clearly the world as seen through the eyes of the little girl. Yes, like Stockett’s character, Florence is mostly raised by and cared for by an African American family, one of who happens to be the woman servant (cook, housekeeper, babysitter) of Florence’s grandparents. But the relationship between Florence and the black people in her life seems so much more honest and conflicted than those described by Stockett.

Quite understandably, this novel has been compared to Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, and it is like that novel in how consistently and convincingly the voice remains that of a young white girl looking out at a confusing racist world. But unlike Scout, the heroine of Lee’s novel, Florence’s father is not an attorney who defends the civil rights of a falsely accused black man, but instead a well known member of the local clan, and only slowly does Florence come to understand that the little club her father belongs to (and the play costumes he dresses up in when he goes to meetings) is feared and hated by those in the world she most loves.

One more quick point before telling you just a bit about this novel, on the jacket cover one author and critic says of this book that “it is the most powerful and lyrical novel about race, racism, and denial in the American South since To Kill a Mockingbird.”  My first reaction to that excessive praise was to wonder if the critic had somehow forgotten to read Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara. Yes, this little novel is a wonderful if frightening look at a racist world through the eyes of a sad and abused little girl, but simply does not, and cannot, compare to the accounts written by the authors mentioned above. Nor, I think, would Gwin welcome such a comparison.

Florence’s mother is much more aware of the nighttime activities of her husband than is Florence.  And although she is in many ways (and for good reason) afraid of her own husband, she does what she can to warn the African American community when she knows the local clan is gathering. Those affected admire her bravery in passing along the warnings, though they wonder about how she can remain with her husband, and cannot quite fathom or totally trust her. Florence’s grandparents are also decent folk who treat their black employees well, even to some extent stand up to the local clan, but they are themselves locked into a world that sees separation of the races as inevitable.

Although I don’t want to give away too much of the story, it is not surprising that Florence’s mother eventually has to escape from her husband, first with alcohol, then via an attempted suicide, and finally by other means. Unfortunately, she leaves poor Florence behind to deal with a father who continues his late-night meetings, and who visits her in the night, placing a heavy hand on her stomach. Florence is as unaware of the meaning of her father’s visits to her bedroom as she is of his club meetings. Finally, he takes her to one of the meetings, even has her own little outfit sewn for her, proud of his own role as a leader of the local clan and wanting his daughter to share his pride. Passed around, tickled and teased by the smelly, scary old men, she slowly begins to realize that there is something sinister in these meetings and in the “play-clothes” the men wear.
I didn’t know what miscegenation and some of the other words meant until I had looked them up in the dictionary later that night, but the whole letter and pictures made me feel scared about Daddy in a way I hadn’t before. Yes he could be mean and ill tempered and hurtful when you aggravated him, and yes I was sick of him coming into my room at night, and yes I knew it was him that Mama was running away from. But this was somehow different.
As the opening quote implies, all of the ugliness is out there to be seen from the beginning, but it is only through her dealings with her real family, the African American family that raises and protects her, that she is finally able to interpret what she has seen all along.

In the end, I thought this was a superb little book. While the reader does realize once in awhile that there is, after all, a grown woman looking back to tell the story of Florence, in the telling the voice is consistently, unwaveringly, that of a young lonely and confused little girl. The novel shines with authenticity.

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