Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwyn - Book Review

The Queen of Palmyra is a gripping, often distressing, novel depicting life in one small Mississippi town during the summer of 1963 through the eyes of Florence Irene Forrest, a lonely, bright, imaginative youngster on the cusp of adolescence. Florence has returned home to Millwood, MS with her parents after a year of hopping from town to town with her father Win and Mother Martha as Win fails at a number of jobs before they finally decide to return home. They have lived in a series of marginal accommodations while Florence has not attended school. Martha had married Win after mindlessly becoming pregnant by him in an age where quick, quiet marriages were the only alternative. Win, who is physically as well as morally disabled, has one leg shorter than the other and compensates for it by wearing a heavily built up shoe which still doesn't allow him to walk normally.

Having a child narrator creates lots of opportunities for both the writer and the reader. Take a look at Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird or Holden Caulfield in A Catcher in the Rye or the retarded Benjy in Faulkner's masterpiece The Sound and the Fury. There's no telling whether Florence Forrest, the narrator and central character in the this searing novel of racial hatred and human reconciliation set in a small town in Mississippi during the summer of 1963, will join this lustrous trio, but her story is affecting and rings true. A naive, childlike, narrator can see events through un-varnished eyes and interpret them with the range of experience she little understands. This story, told by Florence in the first person, unfolds slowly and, often, painfully, as the narrator views and comes to understand its momentous effects.

1963 was a terrible year in America. George Wallace called for segregation now and forever. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was published, launching the feminist revolution. Martin Luther King issued his Letter from Birmingham jail. In Alabama, Sheriff Bull Connor used dogs and high pressure hoses against protestors in Birmingham. Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, MS. James Meredith became the first black person to graduate from the University of Mississippi. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. It was a bad year for race relations in America and the novel is shadowed by all these events as they effect the lives and interactions of the six major characters. It's easy to forget with the passing of nearly fifty years, the power these events held over our imaginations and lives during those difficult days and years. The power of those years, through Gwin's skill, find their way into contemporary America in an almost seamless fashion. This difficult year provides a context for the entire narrative of The Queen of Palmyra.

As the novel opens, Florence, often nearly nameless she's so invisible, takes pride and pleasure in going to the basement to retrieve her father's treasured box, which he takes with him to “meetings” of his “white councils.” Meanwhile, her mother obsessively bakes cakes to sell to the ladies of Millwood, who come to her door on Saturday mornings to pick them up. Two anchors of normalcy and sanity provide Florence with a sense of balance to which she can cling. Martha's parents, Mimi and Grandpop, suggest a moral anchor of justice and fairness. Grandpops is a dignified local lawyer who reads Florence Uncle Wiggley stories, helping her create an imagination of magical hope for good outcomes. Meanwhile, Mimi's household maid Zenie Johnson, and her husband Ray, care for Florence at Mimi's home and in their own, too. Zenie entertains Florence with tales of Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, a mythical African ruler whose power and beauty overcome all. Another fictional character helping Florence create her imagination and moral compass is Br'er Rabbit, Joel Chandler Harris' folk character depicting black people as smart and wily in the face of danger. Meanwhile, Florence's father, Win, comes to her bedroom and lies with her telling her stories of Bomba, a white orphan in the midst of Africa, who views the natives there as his inferiors while overcoming the dangers they pose. Thus, Florence's childlike life dominates her development as the life she leads in reality becomes increasingly unbearable. Gwin, who's a professor of literature at the University of North Carolina clearly shows how the stories we create about our lives and the understandings we develop about those stories help us to manage our external environment. The world of analogy and metaphor Florence creates around herself help her to understand the coruscating racial environment of 1963 Mississippi filled with the murder of Medgar Evers, the lynching of Emmett Till, and the disappearance of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman along with constant meetings of Win's Klan Klavern, one of which Florence is forced to attend.

When Zenie and Ray's niece Eva arrives in town on summer vacation from her college in North Carolina, the final piece is put in place for a series of events that become increasingly powerful and involving, at times reaching an intensity that leads a reader to wish putting this novel down were an option. Eva agrees to take on the job of helping Florence (Flo to her) prepare to return to school by teaching her to diagram sentences, and diagramming becomes a metaphor for giving shape and meaning to one's experience. (This is the first time in my reading life the hateful sentence diagram has found a redeeming feature.) During this fateful summer, Flo's understanding of the twisted, divided world she lives in grows as she sees her parents for what they are, a deeply disturbed woman and a crazed, crippled man. Meanwhile, her awareness of the evils of racism grows as her perceptions of the world she inhabits sharpens.

Minrose Gwin
Minrose Gwin is a marvelous writer. The Queen of Palmyra echoes with material found in quite a different setting in her memoir Wishing for Snow which I reviewed last month. Her writing is distinctly literary in style, asking her reader to make the effort to dig for meaning and understanding. While the book may have greater appeal for women readers, it tells a story all of us should experience. I'd also recommend the book to adolescents, although it's not a children's book. I also want to thank our bluegrass friend Eugene Brown for pointing me to The Queen of Palmyra which, he said, presented the “other side” of the story presented in The Help, now a popular film. While the books are complementary, I'm not certain what other side Gene had in mind. The Queen of Palmyra is available in all formats from Amazon as well as the usual other sources. It is a Harper/Collins imprint published in 2010.  I read it on our Kindle, and we bought the book.