1929: Scarlet Sister Mary, by Julia Peterkin

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.

Literary Style:

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.

Historical Insight:

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.

Review:

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.”

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“Gal, if I was wicked as you an’ as sho fo Hell as you is, I wouldn’ stop prayin’ day or night. Not me.”

Years may pass, but ol’ Maum Hannah is still going to make sure that Sister Mary (“Si May-e”, as they all call her when Peterkin’s dialogue-in-dialect rears its head) knows the full consequences of her adultery.  Now, admittedly, Mary’s about as adulterous as they come, tracking down as many men, single or married, as she can find (allegedly).  I think most people of even relatively open-minded opinions on the institution of marriage would agree that this is, if not “Hell-bound” (to use Hannah’s parlance), at least mildly inconsiderate and selfish towards the women in her community, or at least those whose husbands she is seducing.  But Mary’s such an inoffensive character—even here, in her late 30s if not early 40s, she still behaves more like a rootless teenager than a wily seductress (and forget about any resemblance to a world-weary mother of…five? six? I can’t keep track.).  It’s awfully hard to envision her as some sort of Delilah-of-the-cotton-fields, even if there is pretty extensive biological evidence of her amorous activities.  It’s like Peterkin didn’t fully imagine how this character would be changed by her life, by her responsibilities, her mistakes, her growing awareness of how the world works.  To be clear, her disrespect for marriage vows is certainly understandable—she’s been badly treated enough by the one husband she had not to care much for other folks’ husbands.  But none of that bitterness or unconventionality is evident anywhere else in her life.  She just seems too flat a character to invest myself in, emotionally.

Investing is particularly hard because Peterkin ties her hands with this crazy dialect.  Peterkin seems unaware of how Southern black plantation workers really talk, since surely they’re able to say more than she gives them credit for.  Their speech is so larded up with filler, cliche, and folksy asides that they can’t get anywhere in a conversation.  Most conversations in dialect have one simple goal—Hannah telling Ben and Mary they’re bound for perdition, let’s say—and they get there slowly (and never get away).  Conversations just keep recycling: “I ain’ a-goin’ to Hell, Maum Hannah.  I’s gwine to get right wi’ the Lord.” “Chile, I’s wishin’ and prayin’ dat you turn to Gawd.  You in trouble, fo-true.” “I’s gwine to, once my nex’ baby come.  I’s gwine to change.” “Chile, I wish I could b’lieve dat. Promisin’ talk don’ cook rice.”  The preceding isn’t a direct quotation, but it might as well be.  Imagine that conversation lasting 15 pages.  There’s a bit of charm to some turns of phrase, but eventually you realize that you and Peterkin are trapped in a conversation she can’t work her way out of (being limited to a vocabulary of 96 words—97 if you count “fo-true” as two words), and you just might be stuck there until the last trump sounds and Maum Hannah finds out if Si May-e ever did repent like she was gwine to.  Mercy.

The sick thing about this is not that Peterkin tries for dialect.  It was a common enough approach to light fiction in the U.S., especially a century ago—light fiction that we’ve all but forgotten, of course, given that it’s all nearly unreadable.  No, what bothers me is that she has the capacity to write a serious novel, and she’s trying to, and the dialect is like an embarrassing little brother.  She keeps locking him in the closet.

Chapter 21 is a painfully excellent example of this.  For the first time in a long time (maybe the whole book, alas), I’m really intrigued with the scenario.  Mary’s son, Keepsie (don’t ask about the name), lost a leg in an accident with a harvester.  She wants good crutches made for him, but the only blacksmith in town is her cousin, Andrew, a pious deacon in the church, and the man who has publicly supported both her and her beloved “uncle” Budda Ben’s ejection from the local congregation.  But she goes to see her cousin anyway, and the conversation that follows is a marvel.  Andrew has just had a fight with his wife—a horrible, they-may-never-recover fight in which she pushes all his buttons (including a few he didn’t know he had) and he hit her, despite never having done so in his life.  So he’s out at the forge taking out some aggression when this sinner cousin comes along.  Their conversation is really intriguing.  I finally see the Mary I haven’t met: she’s flirtatious but so very subtle, asking questions she can guess the answer to, smiling at the right moments.  She’s seducing Andrew unconsciously, without even meaning to, and he plays along.  It’s not clear that anything will come of this other than a pair of crutches—certainly Mary’s not trying to get Andrew in bed.  Not really.  But both of them have gotten better-looking with age while the rest around them are starting to show signs of wear.  They’re undeniably attractive.  But is Mary so far gone as to seduce her cousin and a deacon, a man faithful to his wife?  And will he go for her?  I grant you, this is very stock stuff as plot goes: Harlequin can publish 27 of these a year without breaking a sweat.  But Peterkin establishes a scenario in an intriguing way, and the story is finally helping me flesh out two characters I’ve known since Chapter 1.

What’s bizarre, then, about Chapter 21 is that the seduction is a verbal one (no physical contact between them is even suggested, and there’s very little use of body language or expression other than a few smiles and frowns), and yet most of the conversation is not spoken but narrated.  Mary says X and Y.  Andrew says Z.  Mary smiles and wonders Q.  Andrew leans back against the fence and suggests that A.  Quotation marks are almost unheard of here–despite this being a very lengthy conversation, filling 25 pages in my edition, all the written dialogue (in dialect) might fill 2 or 3.  Why is this?  I think it must be what I’ve already alluded to: Peterkin’s created a discourse for these characters that’s unworkable.  She can’t use it to reveal anything other than the broadest strokes of their characters.  She can’t use it to distinguish tones and moods very effectively—everything seems to be shouted at about the same volume level.  And so here she is, having devised a really nice yet complicated little conversation, and she has to give it all to us in the voice of the omniscient narrator because to do it in dialect would take 167 pages and by the end we wouldn’t have gleaned half as much about these characters as we need to.

There were two ways to do this right, and one to do it wrong but better than this.  One right way is to really learn how people speak: to acknowledge from the beginning that speaking in dialect doesn’t make you stupid, and to find a way to write that dialogue so that it’s authentic and conveys all the layers of character you need to.  The other right way is to admit that you’re a white kid from the right side of the tracks, you’ll never get the dialect right, and just write the novel with conversations in Edith Wharton’s perfect little sentences—will it be authentic?  No, of course not.  But we’ll get to know and believe characters about their own stories, and we’ll learn as much as you’re able to teach us about the lives of these sharecroppers in a way that respects their dignity (if not their linguistics).  The wrong way would have been to go completely the other way: to write a very simple emotional story with little subtlety, where the limitations of the dialect are limitations of the characters’ ability to think.  This would be wrong, as noted, but there wouldn’t be any frustration to it.  It would be a cheap sentimental novel about “jes’ plain folk” and earn something by that honesty.  But this novel gets the worst of it all.  It pretends to respect these characters and their world by letting them speak their own language.  Until, that is, anything of value or complexity needs saying, at which point the “black” speech disappears and this very educated “white” voice appears to speak for them, as though they need an interpreter to communicate real thoughts of beauty, love, joy, pain, etc.  Maybe I’m wrong to think that the narrator’s voice is automatically “white”, but there’s no denying it’s “other” to this community of black Americans, and that’s the real problem.  Peterkin wants to pretend to respect people she doesn’t understand, but has no intention of working at understanding them.  That kind of hypocrisy is worse, both as a writer and as a person (to put it harshly), than a more blatant refusal to respect them on any level.  Cruelty can be opposed openly and easily.  Condescension is a sly poison.

This isn’t worse than The Able McLaughlins.  Not yet.  But I’m warning you, Scarlet Sister Mary.  You’re on thin ice.  Fo-true.

Resurfacing…

Sorry for the long silence on my end.  Finishing school was a marathon of reading and writing, and when it finished, I guess I needed space to recharge my batteries, both reading and writing.  I’ve read some science fiction, written some letters to friends, etc., and feel better now about returning to the blog.

I wish I could say I felt better about Scarlet Sister Mary—it’s not that it’s racist (well, that’s not the current problem).  It’s that it’s leapt forward in time in an insensible fashion.  I’ll credit Peterkin.  I was worried this was a traditional romance story, where she’d built up July as unreliable and unfaithful, and June as stable and loyal, and we’re just waiting for Mary to find happiness with June.  But in one fell swoop, Peterkin races Mary into a relationship with June, then flies forward a decade and change, past June’s having abandoned Mary (why? absolutely nothing in her portrayal of June makes that believable) and past her oldest children leaving the home (the only kids we have any connection to).  We’re left looking at an older Mary dealing with the struggle of raising kids we have no identity for—one of them loses a leg, but honestly it makes him pitiful and not sympathetic because I don’t have time to meet him before the accident.

I don’t know why authors think they can get away with this.  It feels as though Peterkin saw the plot hole she was falling into, and bailed out.  But that’s not good writing, even if it is self-aware.  Wharton can jump forward in time for an epilogue because at that point, only one thing matters…we need to see the outcome of a single relationship, and the fast-forwarding of all else isn’t a problem because ultimately, these side issues aren’t relevant.  But jumping forward half-way through the story, and jettisoning relationships with half of these characters, is just silliness.  Especially because the other relationships in the story don’t seem to have gone anywhere—I can’t see, for example, that Mary’s relationship to Maum Hannah and Budda Ben has altered at all.  I don’t see the point in having spent all that time on relationships that are left by the wayside.  Maybe they’re all coming back into the story and it will all make sense, but right now I feel more disorientation than anything else.  If this is clever plotting, it’s poor execution.

Anyway, we’ll see where it goes.  I’m glad to be back—and glad you’re back also.

“Prayer-meeting was over, and the shouting was about to start.”

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.

“Get de box, June, and play me a tune. I rather dance by myself out here in de yard.”

I wish I could say I was getting into this novel, for Scarlet Sister Mary’s sake.  She is a sad figure in many respects, caught between worlds.  After her wedding to the rakish July (the boy’s name might as well be Trouble, given how boldly the author makes it clear that this is not a man to marry), July convinces her to go to a dance.  Being a “good Christian”, though, like her Maum Hannah wants her to be, she can’t dance.  July, though, is unencumbered by faith (or decency, or compassion, or…) and proceeds to dance wildly and a bit sensually with a girl named “Cinder” who’s long had her eye on him.  This is on his wedding night, mind you—not that it’s any better three days later, but it gives you a sense of the man’s awareness of the feelings of others.  So Mary, out of anger and desperation that she’s losing her man, gets his twin brother June to play a song, and she dances by herself outside with such fury and passion that she’s the talk of the dance, and July loses interest in Cinder (for the moment).  And the next day she’s thrown out of the church.

And their marriage proceeds much as you’d imagine it would.  The child is born, early enough to be a scandal—July names him “Unexpected”, a word Mary needs to have defined for her.  They agree to call the little boy by the nickname “Unex”.  And then everything runs downhill…Cinder returns to town and puts on her best wiles, July hears the call of the wild, and wedding vows seem to be of little importance.  There’s a longing in Mary for something more—a longing she feels for July at times, but also for the sound of singing at Christmas, or when she is picking cotton in the fields.  But that longing isn’t well expressed, either by the character or her narrator, so it’s hard to tell what we’re supposed to glean from all this.

We’re back to my standard complaint about these Pulitzer novels.  I’m done with 1/3 of the book, and I’m still trapped in a painful paint-by-numbers plot I saw coming a mile down the track.  There’s no real depth to Mary as a character (her limited intellect diminishes the author’s ability to do much more with her), and July and Cinder are even more one-dimensional.  The deep, interesting possibilities I saw in Maum Hannah and her son are totally unexplored…the characters are almost forgotten.  (Even so, the best moment in this section is Hannah’s—her willingness to forgive Mary’s “sin” is heartwarming, and her statement that she forgives Mary, but God might not be so forgiving, is intriguing.  Who does Hannah think God is, that she’s more merciful than him?  What does faith really mean in this community?  Ah well….Peterkin’s not going there.)  Even June, who may be of some importance to Mary’s future escape from this marriage (at least, I anticipate an upcoming escape), isn’t doing anything—I know as much about him now as I did one paragraph after seeing him first described.

I get the feeling that, in the 1920s, just having a bit of a potboiler for a plot, combined with some scandal (unmarried sex! infidelity! stories about black people for a white audience!) and some local color (in this case, dialect and the plantation setting) was pretty startling.  Somehow it was impressing the Pulitzer board, at least.  But color me bored.  I’m hoping this book gets moving soon, since 200 more pages of drawn-out marital tension followed by Mary’s inevitable escape into the faithful arms of June is going to be a Harlequin romance without the sexuality, and I don’t know anybody who reads Harlequins for the dialogue and character development.   More on this soon, I hope.

“Some sin is black, an’ some ain’ so black, but dis sin you had is pure scarlet.”

I saw many old friends today at a memorial service for a man I worked with for five years—it was good to see them, in spite of the somber circumstances, and it was especially nice to hear from a friend and retired colleague that he’s been reading my blog (thanks, Brian!).  So I thought I ought to thank you all for reading what I write here (when I write it): I still don’t quite know what this is or what it means to me, but to share a journey with friends is a very good thing, and your occasional comments of appreciation and encouragement are really lovely to receive.  Now, on with Scarlet Sister Mary.

As can be guessed, I think, the quotation at the head of today’s post explains part of our title.  The central character of this story appears to be a girl named Mary, working as a sharecropper fieldhand on an old plantation in the post-bellum South.  She’s a member of the church (“sister Mary”, then) and an orphan, who’s been raised by a kind old woman named Maum Hannah—it’s Maum Hannah’s voice speaking in that quotation.  What’s sister Mary’s scarlet sin?  Do you even have to ask?

Sister Mary’s fifteen now, almost sixteen, and has fallen in love with a young man named July.  July is a brash, high-spirited, extroverted young man, whose twin, June, is a quiet, focused, loyal young man who is also in love with Mary, of course.  The story rushes quite rapidly through Mary disappointing poor June and being courted by lively July, so that we reach her wedding day.  And as she’s getting ready for her wedding, Maum Hannah notices that sister Mary’s belly is swollen…that she and July have been “a-havin sin”, as she puts it.  I haven’t hit the social consequences of this yet—I’m really hoping I’m not reading some retread of the story of Hester Prynne, but it sort of looks that way, doesn’t it?

I don’t know that Mary’s the most interesting character yet.  I think probably I’m most intrigued by Maum Hannah and her son, the crippled Budda Ben, who’s served as a father/uncle/brother figure to Mary during her years of growing up.  Ben was injured as an infant when his mother fell on top of him while sneaking away from her husband to visit her lover (Ben’s biological father)…so Maum Hannah knows a thing or two about “scarlet sins”, it seems.  The resulting relationship between these two characters seems really deep and promising—here’s just one moment that makes me think so:

“Crippled Budda Ben was bound to die ahead of his mother who prayed to God every day of her life to let her outlive him, so that when he died she could see that his box was made right.  Budda’s poor legs must not be cramped when they were laid in the ground for their last long rest.  She knew how to pray and she would outlive Budda Ben as sure as the world.”

Now, there’s a mother-son relationship I think is really worth exploring!  Next to that, “scarlet” sister Mary’s struggle with the puritanical values of her church as opposed to the hedonistic values of her soon-to-be-husband strikes me as a little too paint-by-numbers.  We’ll see if Julia Peterkin’s idea of an interesting story intersects with mine—I hope so, at least.

I continue to be bothered by this book’s racial attitudes, but I’m worried I’m not being fair: walk through this with me and tell me what you think.  The dialect these people speak is really the most appalling Amos’n’Andy stuff.  To illustrate, here’s the scene in which June learns that Mary’s in love with July:

“You is gwine to marry July? . . . July ever was a lucky boy.  E ever was.  I never had a luck in my life.”

“Ain’ you glad I’m gwine to be you sister, June?” she asked him.

“Not so glad, Si May-e.”

I haven’t even gotten to Maum Hannah’s standard outbursts (“Lawd, gal, I’m dat sorry, I could pure cry like a baby.  I could, fo’true.”)  So, I look at this and feel like I’m being asked to think of these character as “jes’ folks”, people without real depth or dignity, people who can barely string thoughts together.  I think this is heightened because of the narrator’s voice—for an example of that, here’s a snippet from the description of the old plantation where this book takes place.

“Earthquakes tumble down chimneys, storms break trees and houses, floods wash the earth so bare that its very bones are exposed, droughts burn up crops and weeds with impartial cruelty, but the old plantation is swift to hide every scar made by all this wickedness. . . . Life fills and enfolds everything here, never overlooking in the press of work to be done the smallest or most insignificant creature, and silently, with weariless patience and diligence, strange miracles are wrought as youth rises out of decay and death becomes only another beginning.”

I’m not saying that’s William F. Buckley talking, but I think it’s awfully well articulated, in general.  The contrast between the highly educated voice of the narrator (which remains always very distant from the characters, rarely narrating their thoughts/perceptions) and the voices of the people we encounter is stark.  So, am I wrong to react negatively to this?  Maybe my distaste at the dialect is a kind of condescension as a reader, a way of imposing my racial or class prejudices on a legitimate discourse?  Or is it the writer who’s condescending, setting up the tensions in this piece to be an impassioned and emotional minstrel show?  I can’t decide…and I’d very much like to hear your opinions, based on the evidence provided.

“The black people who live in the Quarters at Blue Brook Plantation believe they are far the best black people living on the whole ‘Neck’…”

“…as they call that long, narrow, rich strip of land lying between the sea on one side and the river with its swamps and deserted rice fields on the other.”

That lengthy sentence opens Scarlet Sister Mary, by Julia Peterkin, the 1929 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.  I’m skeptical about this one.  Maybe it’s a sensitive portrayal of a portion of the African-American experience.  Maybe it’s at least sympathetic to the plight of those enslaved.  But the fairly casual references to slaves as being bred like race-horses and clinging to old superstitions make me suspicious.  I mean, here’s the second sentence in the novel:

“They are no Guinea negroes with thick lips and wide noses and low ways; or Dinkas with squatty skulls and gray-tinged skin betraying their mean blood; they are Gullahs with tall straight bodies, and high heads filled with sense.”

Even if I put the best possible spin on this, in which I focus on the positive portrayal of the Gullahs (who are, it seems, our protagonists?) and assume that the narrator’s negative comments about Guineas and Dinkas are from the perspective of proud and biased Gullahs, it certainly didn’t set me at ease.  If this novel proves to be really viciously racist, I don’t know how well I’ll survive it.  Peterkin does have a good way with words (not really evident in the above excerpts, so I guess you’ll have to trust me for now), but style won’t make up for bigotry, if it comes to that.  We’ll see, I guess.