Thursday, August 26, 2010

Book Review: The Queen of Palmyra, by Minrose Gwin

The Queen of Palmyra
by Minrose Gwin
Harper Perennial
390 pgs.

This book had me at the first sentence.

"I need you to understand how ordinary it all was."

Yep, those ten words were all I needed. Love at first paragraph, continuing on for the next 297 pages.

I mean, that sentence tells us so much, doesn't it?  It tells the reader that narrator Florence Irene Forrest is a bit older, that she's telling us a story about something that might have happened long ago, something possibly terrible and that she survived, and something that in the time and the place it occurred seemed commonplace.  Ordinary.  Just in ten words. 

Make no mistake, though. The Queen of Palmyra isn't an ordinary novel.  It has been compared in cover blurbs to To Kill a Mockingbird, and having read both books I believe comparison is more than well-deserved.  Like its classic predecessor, The Queen of Palmyra marks author Minrose Gwin's fiction debut(she previously wrote a memoir called Wishing for Snow).

Like Harper Lee's precocious Scout, Minrose Gwin gives us a resilient, strong girl in Florence. (I'd like to think they would have been friends in a different time.) Both are coming-of-age stories set amid the racially-charged Deep South.

Rich in symbolism right down to the types of cakes (lemon, caramel, and devil's food) Florence's mother supports the family by baking, The Queen of Palmyra is the sort of book where every single word and phrase means something. There were so many passages and phrases and similes that I would have loved to have underlined and savored. (Gwin uses a lot of similes in this novel.  A lot. Normally that kind of irks me, but the rest of the writing was simply so wonderful that somehow I was able to overlook and forgive this.)

Ultimately, The Queen of Palmyra is a novel about the people we know and think we know, about secrets and about stories - the ones we are told, the ones we tell ourselves, and the ones we know to be true.

"Some stories are uneasy sleepers. They roam a dark house, gliding like silk from room to room. Touching a sleeping form here, tucking in a cover there. Maybe they will wake up on their feet and be confused as to their whereabouts. Or maybe they will unlock the front door without a sound and walk on down the street and out into the night, never to be heard from again. Because some stories can just up and leave. You don't know where they went, or whether they'll ever come back. Their leaving throws up its arms and leans forward into such an emptiness that the words rise up and say no." (pg. 155)

(Even just retyping that for this review I'm thinking, oh, wow ... now I see the layers in what initially seemed like a gorgeous and poetic piece of writing!  I am not one for re-reading books, but you can be sure that I will be re-reading this one.  It's the type of book that I want to re-read right now, an hour after finishing it.) 

Initially, I nearly dismissed this book.  I can't exactly pinpoint why ... maybe it was the cover, although I think the cover fits with the book.  Maybe it seemed too much like any other coming-of-age novel, maybe it seemed too YA when I wasn't in the mood for YA (even though I enjoy contemporary YA, don't get me wrong!), maybe it is something ridiculous like my associating Palmyra with a city in New Jersey that is known for the bridge that bears its name.

Whatever my initial reservations were, don't let them be yours.  Because once I saw this on the New Books shelf of the library, I realized that I had seen this one on many a blog that I liked.  (Yes, book bloggers were definitely responsible for my picking this book up.) Plus the description and the comparisons to To Kill a Mockingbird also sold me. Speaking of the plot, I've deliberately not been saying much about it in this review, as not to give too much away, so I'm going to take the easy way out here and use most of the book description from Harper Perennial. (I am really starting to fall in love with the Harper Perennial books.  Thank you, Beth Fish Reads.)

In the turbulent southern summer of 1963, Millwood's white population steers clear of "Shake Rag," the black section of town. Young Florence Forrest is one of the few who crosses the line. The daughter of a burial insurance salesman with dark secrets and the town's "cake lady," whose backcountry bootleg runs lead further and further away from a brutal marriage, Florence attaches herself to her grandparents' longtime maid, Zenie Johnson. Named for Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, Zenie treats the unwanted girl as just another chore, while telling her stories of the legendary queen's courage and cunning.

[Wait a minute.  If I may interject something for a second.  I didn't really get the sense that Zenie treated Florence as just another chore.  Yeah, there were times that it appeared that way, but deep down I believe that Zenie loved and cared for Florence. Given the times and the circumstances, she may not have been able to show it as demonstratively as she might have wished.  She also could have been overwhelmed.  I'm just not sure that is an accurate depiction of Zenie's character, that's all.]

The more time Florence spends in Shake Rag, the more she recognizes how completely race divides her town, and her story, far from ordinary, bears witness to the truth and brutality of her times [description clipped, as I think the rest gives too much away]. 

I loved almost everything about The Queen of Palmyra except - and this is such a minute quibble that I can't believe I am even mentioning it - for the fact that the phrase and imagery of "precious cargo" was reinforced a few too many times. If you read this, you know what I mean.  If you haven't, by all means, this is definitely not a deal breaker.  Not in the least.  And while there was a predictable turn or two in the plot, the tension and foreboding throughout the entire novel more than made up for that.  On several occasions, I found myself silently thinking no no no no, like the sound of the train that Florence marks time by as they speed by in the night.

I just keep coming back to the writing in this one. Minrose Gwin's writing is simply spectacular in this book.  It's breathtaking and lyrical.  It just shines, and in doing so, shines a light on a part of our collective history that should never, ever be forgotten.  That's one of the many reasons why I believe that The Queen of Palmyra is a book that should be taught and discussed (it would be a great book club book, I think) much in the way that To Kill a Mockingbird is.  I think that The Queen of Palmyra is just as important of a book and hopefully, that it will also be one that people will also be talking about in 2060, on the 50th anniversary of its publication. 

And hopefully, too, The Queen of Palmyra marks the first of many more novels from the incredible literary talent of Minrose Gwin.

What Other Bloggers Thought:

The Bluestocking Society
The Book Lady's Blog (this was a DNF for Rebecca)
Book, Line, and Sinker
Booking Mama
Confessions of a Real Librarian
Crazy for Books (also a DNF for Jennifer)
Dolce Bellezza
Everything Distils Into Reading
The Girl from the Ghetto
Good Books and Good Wine
Lit and Life
my books, my life

Did I miss your review?  Let me know in the comments. 

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Julie P. said...

I really enjoyed this one too but I'm not sure enjoy is the right world. I agree that the writing is something special.

Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) said...

I know exactly what you mean, Julie. It seems strange to say I loved this, but I did. I think one just has to read it to know what we mean. :)

Trisha said...

What a wonderful review! I'll have to add it to the wishlist.