Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Review: The Queen of Palmyra

The Queen of Palmyra is a dark, beautiful new novel exploring the segregated society of Mississippi in 1963 through the eyes of an eleven year-old girl. With the tensions and emotions of the civil rights movement as a backdrop, author Minrose Gwin situates her main character Florence in the middle of racial conflict, constructing a story that is quite tense and emotional itself.

In the summer of her eleventh year, Florence Forrest is trying to make sense of the battery of contradictory information coming at her from the influential people in her life. Her liberal, educated mother, who drags Florence along on her late night trips to the bootlegger. Her stoic "traditional" father, who has his own secret nighttime activities which her mother opposes. Her kind grandparents who disapprove of their daughter's choice in marrying her high school sweetheart. Zenie, her grandparents' longtime maid. And, the force to be reckoned with: Eva Greene.

After spending "a year on the lam", moving from city to city as her father sought and failed to hold onto jobs, Florence and her parents have now returned to Millwood, Mississippi. Her father secures a job as a burial insurance salesman and her mother creates an at-home business baking cakes. Florence lost touch with her classmates after the move, and is virtually friendless. When not helping her mother with cakes, Florence spends considerable time at her grandparents' house, under the care of Zenie. However, when her mother flees her family, Florence spends most of her time at Zenie's house, in the black part of town called Shake Rag. It is here that Florence meets the dynamic, exotic, and life-changing Eva Greene, Zenie's niece, a college student visiting for the summer.

Together, Zenie and Eva become almost stand-in mothers for Florence, attempting to teach her how the world really is, while also tutoring her lagging academic progress. As she moves uncomfortably between her two worlds, never really fitting in to either one, Florence slowly recognizes the growing conflict surrounding her father's mysterious late night meetings, and the pivotal role that Eva plays in this conflict.

The isolation, anxiety and escapism of the novel come to a violent climax that takes years for Florence to fully understand. Readers won't realize it until later, but the novel opens with a bit of explanation for why she was so slow to realize the truth:

I need you to understand how ordinary it all was. At night the phone would ring after supper. My father would say a few quiet words into the receiver. Sometimes he spoke in numbers. A three he would say. Or a four. When he put down the phone he'd turn and look right at me. There would be a strange pleasure in his look, a gladness. he would ask me to perform this one small task; he'd tell me to go fetch him his box. (1)

And after her adult realization of what her father was and what transpired that summer, Florence has a heartbreaking understanding of why it took her so long:

How he did that thing I couldn't see, didn't see. A willed, necessary blindness. True stories happen, and then you tell them. But what you tell depends on what you see. And what you see depends on what you know. (381)

It's a beautiful description of what Florence experienced, and a very moving portion of the book. Florence's emotional and intellectual selves certainly undergo major shifts during that crucial summer, but huge developments are also made years later as she is standing in front of her English grammar students. This is what makes The Queen of Palmyra a true and unique coming-of-age story, one almost on par with To Kill a Mockingbird.

{This review is based on the uncorrected proof . Quotations and page numbers may differ from the final published version.}

1 comment:

Dianna B said...

I have this checked out and it's next on deck to be read! I'm even more excited to read it now :)