This is what I can get into about Scarlet Sister Mary—these moments where I really do feel as though Peterkin knows something about the community I’m immersing myself in, and I turn an unexpected corner. The distinction (visible above) between “prayer-meeting” and “the shouting” (both of them critical aspects of the Christian community that surrounds Mary) intrigues me. I love the phrase “line out”: since the congregation that gathers has only one hymnal, Brer Dee reads it off a line at a time, and after each line the community’s voices swell with song, imitating him. I wish the book spent a lot more time with Brer Dee lining out hymns, and Maum Hannah shouting about the year of “Juba-lee”. I feel as though that community has something to say to me, at least. But this blog post will have to turn, as the author does, to the more mundane problems of Sister Mary.
Mary’s problems were not unforeseeable. She married a “bad boy” that everyone warned her against (even his family). When he beat her and mistreated her, she dutifully accepted it; when he cheated on her, she blamed the woman but not him. Now, I know that such relationships are complicated—that it’s easy to say “she should have left him”, but that it’s not that easy to leave an abuser in a lot of circumstances. But Mary’s circumstances don’t seem to warrant her standing by her man. Everyone in the community seems to know about July’s infidelity (and they suspect his abuse). Maum Hannah and Budda Ben both encourage her to leave July and start over—they offer to take her in, and help care for the baby. Others in the community, too, push her to walk away from the man, and the Christians in the local congregation seem surprisingly willing to let bygones be bygones and welcome her into the fold (I was sure there would be shunning and denunciation, but it hasn’t happened yet, at least). But Mary won’t do it. Even after July “runs off” with Cinder—he’s been gone several months, in fact, with this other woman—Mary refuses to move out of the house, refuses to spend even a night away from it, because she wants to be home when July returns. She sits in abject sorrow, day in and day out, neglecting the farm, and allowing her poor infant child to waste away with hunger (until Maum Hannah finally intervenes on the child’s behalf). Surely this strains credibility….even if Mary’s a believable character, how long am I supposed to root for her? She’s being given all the support, understanding, and kindness she could possibly want, and her abuser’s been gone for months: I just cannot imagine what holds her in place. It detaches me from the book.
And I don’t want to be detached from the book. As mentioned, I find aspects of this community fascinating. Mary, at one point, goes to Daddy Cudjoe, a local magic-worker, to get a charm to win her man back. Maum Hannah, a devout Christian, is a major advocate for this—she points out that, having left the church, prayin’ probably won’t bring Mary any help, but luckily for Mary, magic helps sinners and Christians alike. That fascinating interplay of worldviews ought to take the story somewhere, but Peterkin clearly isn’t interested. She thinks we just want to find out if Mary will fall in love with July’s brother, June (who is admittedly the perfect combination of strong, shy, and sweet—he’d never do anything improper regarding Mary, and he’s clearly desperately devoted to her), and what will happen when July comes home. But I can’t come up with a good reason to care about either event.
And my yo-yo of opinions about the book’s racism are back pretty solidly on the “this is unacceptable” side. What’s tipping me off is the fact that the only times characters say anything of real depth, the narrator says it for them. When Daddy Cudjoe is talking with Mary in regular dialogue, he says things like “Dat charm is a man. Great Gawd, yes. E’s a mans o monkeys, honey.” The conversation lurches between folksy and nigh-incomprehensibility. But when Daddy Cudjoe wants to give Mary some good advice, weirdly, the dialogue disappears, and instead we have the conversation narrated for us: “His words were threatening but his eyes were twinkling; he said people and fowls were much alike. That rooster was just like a man. A man may have the finest wife in the world, but just let a strange woman come around and smile at him a little, and he turns to a fool right away.” If Peterkin really believed in the wisdom of these characters, and believed that the dialect she was writing is their authentic speech pattern, there would be no need to put their most serious and weighty remarks in the narrator’s voice. But she knows she’s writing caricature, and she has to pull back from it when she wants to get down to business. I’m hoping to just power through this book and leave it behind me…there are better, and more genuine, books about the African-American experience ahead of me.