Thanks to my good friend Graham, whose advice in a recent comment was to get this novel done and behind me, I bulled through the thing at lunch today, hence my somewhat rapid arrival (after weeks of slogging) at this review.
My primary criticism of this book stands—Peterkin is trapped by her inability to be as racist as her parents’ generation (which is, it should be said, a good thing) and yet trapped by her failure to conceive of truly wise, intelligent, and articulate African-Americans (which is, no matter how much we make “it was the 1920s!” excuses on her behalf, a bad thing). The result is a book that is at its relative best when it is furthest from the characters, most distant from their emotions and expressions. I’ve detailed at length why this troubles me so, and won’t belabor the point here.
There were some good passages in the final chapters that continue to remind me of what the novel could have been. The relationship between Mary and one of her children—a child who, as a result of growing up, has learned more about the world than they care to—is particularly poignant. For a while I see a woman it would have been good to meet. But the depth is an illusion, undercut by Peterkin the moment she can.
Ultimately it’s a profoundly disappointing book—Peterkin, out of a desire not to go too far in any direction, goes absolutely nowhere. Is this book a defense of Mary (whose infidelities, after all, result from an abusive and unfaithful spouse) or a criticism of her (since it’s clear her promiscuity has harmed virtually everyone in her family)? It fails on both counts, but is not better in doing so—it’s not as though this is a nuanced portrait in which I see both sides of Mary. No, instead Peterkin tries to have her cake and eat it: Mary repents of her sins but will not leave them; she has a divine vision that calls her to a sincere change of life (but then takes it back under her breath); Mary wants to have all the comforts of conventional living with all the freedom of iconoclasm. It’s childish, and Peterkin ought to know it. Watching a child grow up to be a mother of ten (by nine different men, none of whom are in the picture) without ever taking responsibility for her life is simply sad, not revealing.
The book fails even to be a simple morality play. The wicked prosper while the good suffer. But no one seems to have any fun at all. This novel is the novel every teenage boy I ever taught thought The Scarlet Letter was. They never saw what Hawthorne was up to, and denounced the book for being boring, sentimental but unsympathetic, uneventful, and frankly unbelievable. But I’d trade all of Scarlet Sister Mary for that one walk Pearl takes in the woods, or the thoughts that flit through Dimmesdale’s mind in an hour on the scaffold. The novel isn’t as wretched as the worst Pulitzer winner I read (despite all my complaints), but it fails to convince me that Peterkin had any reason to write it beyond a vague interest in writing a sort of “Scarlet Letter” from a “black perspective”. And in doing so, she achieves neither the former nor the latter.
The book doesn’t do enough here, but its marginal successes here are about its only saving grace. The depiction of African-American piety, with its notions of grace and sin, along with the vivid experience of its church meetings and Brer Dee “lining out” hymns, is absolutely the strength of the book. I don’t know if I can trust Peterkin to be accurate, but it’s interesting enough that I believe in that slice of life, and want more. The rest is silliness—Peterkin doesn’t know the first thing about cotton-picking, and does very little to conjure a believable life for a mother of ten in a world before electronics and home appliances. A real Sister Mary would be working her fingers to the bone trying to earn money, cook, clean, wash, tend to, etc., the needs of such a vast family with no significant outside help. But instead she seems to have the carefree life of a teenager. There may be young children in the home, but Peterkin’s uninterested in making that seem remotely vivid. There’s something to this book that calls to me—I’d like to read a real African-American take on church-going and growing up a “sinner”. But it’s not coming anytime soon…Gone With The Wind, to name but one, is one of the hurdles between me and black authenticity.
This novel rates at “unworthy of your time”. It has none of the worst excesses of The Able McLaughlins that made that novel fun to hate. It’s just a waste of good paper and ink—at best, the rough draft of a novel Peterkin could have written with the help of an aggressive editor and at least one genuine black American with the willingness to share a real story. It’s a shame she never did.
The Last Word:
Since you’ll never read this book, I don’t mind sharing the very last scene in it: Mary has just had a painful experience involving the death of a child. She has spent days without food and water, praying to God for help and repenting all her sins. She has begged her way into the church because she wants to “walk in the light” again. And now that the elders have decided to forgive her and make her a Christian again, here’s the last scene, involving the old conjurer, Daddy Cudjoe, and the charm he gave her that allowed her to use black magic to seduce the many men she’s seduced:
Meeting was over and the people came up to welcome Mary back into the fold. They shook her hand until it was numb, her arm ached with weariness, but her heart was warmed through with so much kindliness.
Old Daddy Cudjoe came last, after most of the others had gone and only Andrew waited outside to see Mary home. He took Mary’s hand and shook it, then he cut his eyes all around to be certain Maum Hannah could not hear him when he whispered:
“If you gwine to quit wid mens now, Si May-e, do gi me you conjure rag. E’s de best charm I ever made.”
Mary looked straight into his eyes and smiled as she shook her head.
“I’ll lend em to you when you need em, Daddy, but I couldn’ gi way my love-charm. E’s all I got now to keep me young.”