Monday, November 29, 2010

Review: The Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin

When you think of the civil rights movement, it is more than likely you're firmly planted in the South, correct? It seems as if southern-set fiction generally has one of two (or both) characteristics. Either it is set during the civil rights movement (or in some way connected to it) or it is rife with quirky eccentric characters like the southern gothics populating Flannery O'Connor's works. As much as I say I enjoy Southern fiction, I am getting a little tired of these two inevitabilities. Enter Gwin with The Queen of Palmyra, the novel everyone was raving about and which I was leery of reading, knowing in advance it was another civil rights novel.

Narrated by Florence, who was 12 years old during the significant events of one summer in 1960's Mississippi, this novel is actually told through the memories of a much older Florence looking back on her naive and innocent self with knowledge that she never had or never understood at the time. Most of the narration seems as if it is coming from a young girl but the perspective of memory gives the reader tantalizing glimpses into the deep and terrible truths that escape 12-year old Florence.

The Forrest family is one shattered by ugliness and illness. When the story opens, Florence's mother, Martha, is the town's cake lady, baking cakes for special occasions and to supplement the family income. She is also an alcoholic. Florence's father, Win, is a burial insurance salesman who has terrorized the black population in town into buying from him. He is also a ranking member of the local Ku Klux Klan, a nasty man who tries hard to instill his own thinking and reverences in his daughter. But Florence spends more time with her educated and more liberal thinking grandparents and with their black maid Zenie, named for Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, than she does with her dysfunctional parents, thereby escaping the full brunt of Win's evil.

During the slow, hot summer of the novel, racial tension and violence mount even as Florence practically lives at Zenie's home, unable to understand why she is not easily welcome there, amongst the people so brutalized by her father and his cronies. As her mother's small defiances against her father lead to a family crisis at home, Florence spends more and more time in Shake Rag, the black section of town so she is already installed at Zenie's home most days when Zenie's progressive-thinking niece Eva arrives and brings tensions to a head trying to sell burial insurance policies that would compete with Win Forrest's policies.

Telling the story through the eyes of a child but also including fleeting instances of that child's adult perspective allows Gwin to round out Florence's incomplete story and to inform the reader of the importance and scope of events. The method of narration ratchets up the horror of the events because of, rather than in spite of, Florence's uneducated perspective. While this is the case, however, the pace of the narrative is sleepy, dreamy, and slow, lulling the reader into a suspended state. The characters are generally fairly well-rounded although Win and Eva come off as less real and more stereotypical than the others.

As lauded as the novel has been, I have to admit that I didn't love it. I felt like it was a bit too derivative to be wholly satisfying. This feeling might be a function of my having read a lot of Southern literature, some of it even quite recently. There were gaps in the narrative that would make sense from 12 year old Florence's perspective but not given the framing technique of an older Florence looking back on that seminal summer. The climax of the story was less shocking than expected and older Florence's final thoughts on the summer, her actions as a result, were like a deflating balloon, leaving the novel to just peter out. Lukewarm, I liked the novel, thinking it competent and fine enough, but many, many folks have called it one of their favorites of the year. Lovers of Southern lit, folks with an interest in the civil rights movement, and fans of the other big southern book making the rounds of bookclubs this year, The Help, will want to form their own opinions of this one.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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