Published April 2010 by Harper Collins
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours
Florence Forrest has just missed the entire fourth grade, thanks to her father who has taken Florence and her mother off on a search for the perfect job. But now they're back in Milltown, where Florence's father has a job as a burial insurance salesman and her mother is once again settled into her position as the town's "cake lady." With a father that's wrapped up in all of his committees, including one that involved getting a very special box out of the basement for meetings in the evenings, and an alcoholic mother who makes regular trips to the bootlegger, Florence finds herself under the care of her grandmother's maid, Zenie. Zenie is not Aibilene of "The Help;" it is clear that watching Florence is a job to her and that there is a clear line in her head between the black people of the Shake Rag area of Milltown and the whites. But Zenie does tell Florence wonderful stories of Zenobia (for whom she was named), Queen of Palmyra, which Florence loved to hear.
"Zenie liked her mother's stories about the Queen of Palmyra and she liked to make up her own. You never knew how Zenie's Queen of Palmyra stories were going to end up. You only knew that, like Uncle Wiggily, the Queen was going to come out on top."Zenie does offer Florence advice as well, some of clearly lessons she has learned from the experience of being a black in the South.
"Listen here, girl. You can be made inside and nice as spice outside. Won't hurt you non. Just zip it up. Zip it up and stay out of the doghouse. Me, I get made as fire at that woman every day of the week, but she don't know the first thing about it."
For a girl that had spent all of her life growing up in the South, Florence was remarkable oblivious to the tension between the blacks and whites. Considering that her father was a raging racist, it seems odd that she wouldn't have been more clued in. But then, she may have thought that it was largely her father, since her mother clearly felt differently. Florence begins to notice the tension when Zenie's niece, Eva, comes to live with Zenie and makes up Florence using her own foundation and powders. When Florence looks in the mirror and shouts, "I'm colored," it's clear, even to her that she has said something wrong. And when she tries to call herself Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, Zenie puts her back in her place.
In other ways, Florence is wise beyond her years. When her mother tries to give fan to a black woman, Gertrude, she is stunned when Gertrude refuses the fan. When she gets back in the car, Florence says,
"Maybe she didn't want charity."
Mama looked at me, shocked. "This wasn't charity. It was just a fan, for God's sake."
"Maybe it felt like more than a fan."
This being Mississippi in 1963, it's a given that very bad things are probably going to happen, particularly if you think about what might be in that box that Florence's daddy totes around. And when they do start to happen, they come fast and furious, changing Florence's life.
"I should have been worrying about how sad everyone was, but this was before I knew how sadness can ride the wind, planting and reaping itself over and over, and not always in the same plot of ground, before it leafs out and flowers."I probably should have done a better job of avoiding other reviews of the book before I started. In particular, I started the book thinking of Rebecca's (Book Lady's Blog) review. Rebecca had a problem with all of the similes Gwin uses in the book and as soon as I started reading the book, those similes jumped off the page at me. There are a lot of them. Many of them are really wonderful, but there are just so darn many of them.
On the other hand, so many other reviews raved about the book and my expectations were so high it was going to be difficult to live up to them. I did really enjoy this story and the characters in it. The tone and events of the book felt very realistic for the time. Whereas my only complaint with "The Help" was that it didn't live up to the tension that it had built up to, this one delivers.
Minrose Gwin will be back here tomorrow with a guest post talking about her writing habits.
Minrose’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS
Tuesday, May 4th: five borough book review
Wednesday, May 5th: The Bluestocking Society
Monday, May 10th: Rundpinne
Tuesday, May 11th: Natty Michelle
Wednesday, May 12th: Pam’s Perspective
Wednesday, May 12th: My Reading Room
Wednesday, May 19th: Staircase Wit
Tuesday, May 25th: Dolce Bellezza
Wednesday, May 26th: Take Me Away
Thursday, May 27th: Life and Times of a “New” New Yorker
Monday, May 31st: Green Jello
Tuesday, June 1st: Crazy for Books