Why do you think the 60s are ripe for fictionalization? What is it about that amazing time?
Not that I'm complaining. I first had my smidgen of an idea for a story that would take place during Mississippi Freedom Summer, 1964, almost 10 years ago in a Writing for Children class at The New School. I didn't know whether the time period was intriguing to kids, I just knew I had to tell that particular story. Now, all these years later, my novel is on the verge of publication. Amazing to me.
Yesterday I was talking to a friend I grew up with about our childhoods, marveling at the lives we lived and the interest shown in them now. Kids' books, literary fiction, movies, Mad Men. The Help has spent over 60 weeks near the top of the best seller list. Secret Life of Bees? A terrific crossover novel and a not-half-bad movie.
And just released this May is Minrose Gwin's The Queen of Palmyra, a darker, more complicated and considerably more literary, amazingly told story of a time in our history some would just as soon forget.
The setting? A small Southern town where neighbors tend to help each other out. Share coffee on the front porch. Bring casseroles for births, funerals and most everything in between. At least on the outside, everyone’s happy. Well, maybe not 11-year-old Florence Forrest's family, who’d just as soon the neighbors do their meddling on their own side of the fence.
And if anybody needed a casserole, the Forrests do. They are falling apart. Florence's father has failed at yet another job, and her mother, Martha, insists they return to the family’s hometown where Martha’s cake business will support them. Florence’s grandmother seems sympathetic to the young girl’s plight—her raggedy, outgrown summer shirts and shorts and inability to place the states properly on a map. But despite her love for the child, the grandmother is limited by her relationship with her shiftless son-in-law.
So young Florence’s care is mostly given over to the grandparents’ long-time maid. Over six feet tall with bad veins and legs that pain her, Zenie, named for Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, agrees to take on Florence for the summer. She’ll “try it out. See how much trouble she get into.” Mostly she ignores the girl. Then Eva, college-educated and filled with ideas, moves in with her Aunt Zenie and turns the Black community— and young Florence’s life— upside down.
A powerful sense that all is not right with the world starts in chapter one as the young narrator looks out on the children off to school. With their shirts "tucked into their pleated skirts," they carry their books and "little lunch boxes and satchels. Watching this parade of regular children on their way to school, I feel like a dead girl looking down from heaven on the trickles of the life she is missing out on."
That's the voice of one strong narrator, telling a powerful story. I liked this novel from the beginning. I loved it even more when I read it the second time.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me put it out there right now. I know Minrose Gwin. But when I was sent this book by the publicist, I had no clue that my life and that of the writer had intersected. In fact, I don't normally review books by friends, unless I truly love them so much that I can't help it. But we were friends in our early college days in Mississippi, until we were 19 and departed that women's college. We had different names back then. Many years have passed. I had no idea.
Plus, I loved the book.
And then I discovered serendipitously, that Ms. Gwin is now an English professor at my alma mater, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. So not only am I proud of this book as an alum and as a former, almost-childhood friend rediscovered, I'm just plain delighted that it's such a good book. And that it has added to the discussion of life in the turbulent 60s.
For an interview with the author, click here.
For Minrose Gwin’s website, with appearances and signings listed for the summer and fall, click here.