Thursday, September 9, 2010

Book Review: QUEEN OF PALMYRA:

Augusta Scattergood has worked as a reference librarian and an elementary school librarian. A book reviewer for The Christian Science Monitor, Delta Magazine, and other publications, she also writes for children, her favorite genre being middle-grade fiction.

She blogs about reading, writing and especially writing for kids at http://ascattergood.blogspot.com/ 

I'm always honored when she shares a book review for use on my blog!  Welcome back, Augusta.
  

Why do you think the 60s are ripe for fictionalization? What is it about that amazing time?

Not that I'm complaining. Almost 10 years ago in a Writing for Children class at The New School, I first had a smidgen of an idea for a story that would take place during Mississippi Freedom Summer, 1964. I didn't know whether the time period was intriguing to kids, I just knew I had to tell that particular story. Now, all these years later, my novel is on the verge of publication. Amazing, even to me.

Books about the 60s are cropping up everywhere. Most I’ve read have been pretty darn close to the truth. Kids' books like Deborah Wiles’ new novel Countdown. Literary fiction, movies, Mad Men. The Help has spent over 60 weeks near the top of the best seller list. Secret Life of Bees? A terrific crossover novel and a not-half-bad movie.

My latest discovery is Minrose Gwin'sThe Queen of Palmyra, a complicated and amazingly told story of a time in our history some would just as soon forget.


The setting? A small Southern town where neighbors tend to help each other out. Share coffee on the front porch. Bring casseroles for births, funerals and most everything in between. At least on the outside, everyone’s happy. Well, maybe not 11-year-old Florence Forrest's family, who’d just as soon the neighbors do their meddling on their own side of the fence.

And if anybody needed a casserole, the Forrests do. They are falling apart. Florence's father has failed at yet another job, and her mother, Martha, insists they return to the family’s hometown where Martha’s cake business will support them. Florence’s teacher grandmother seems sympathetic to the young girl’s plight—her raggedy, outgrown summer shirts and shorts and inability to place the states properly on a map. But despite her love for the child, the grandmother is limited by her relationship with her shiftless son-in-law.

There’s only one person left to help out. Florence’s care is mostly given over to the grandparents’ long-time maid. Over six feet tall with bad veins and legs that pain her, Zenie, named for Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, agrees to take on Florence for the summer. Mostly she ignores the girl. Then Eva, college-educated and filled with ideas, moves in with her Aunt Zenie and turns the Black community— and young Florence’s life— upside down.

A powerful sense that all is not right with the world starts in chapter one as the young narrator looks out on the children going off to school. With their shirts "tucked into their pleated skirts," they carry their books and "little lunch boxes and satchels. Watching this parade of regular children on their way to school, I feel like a dead girl looking down from heaven on the trickles of the life she is missing out on."

That's the voice of one strong narrator, telling a powerful story.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me put it out there right now. I know Minrose Gwin. However, when I was sent this book by the publicist, I had no clue that my life and that of the writer had intersected. But we were friends in our early college days in Mississippi, until we were 19 and departed that women's college. We had different names back then. Many years have passed. I had no idea.

And I loved the book.

Later, I discovered serendipitously, that Ms. Gwin is now an English professor at my alma mater, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. So not only am I proud of this book as an alum and as a former, almost-childhood friend rediscovered, I'm just plain delighted that it's such a good book. For what it has added to the discussion of race, growing up in the South, and life in the turbulent 60s, it should stick around for a very long time.

Enjoy an interview with the author.

4 comments:

  1. Sounds like a great read, Joyce. Thanks for the review.

    Jean Hall

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  2. Thanks for such a wonderful post, Joyce! This book goes on my list of MUST READ. By the way, I attended New School, too. Small world!

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  3. Erin Crotts from Gamewell ElementaryOctober 25, 2010 at 5:47 PM

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    ReplyDelete
  4. Erin, I hear you loud and clear! And I entered you in the contest. Next drawing is November 1st. Sometimes I forget on the first day of the month but eventually it hits me and I announce a winner.

    Thanks for entering and I loved visiting you guys last week!

    ReplyDelete