Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin

410 pages
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

11 comments:

  1. I listened to her on Blog Talk Radio and the mention of similes came up. She said something about how that's how people talked and that certain phrases (heard today) could totally take her back to another time and place.

    I really didn't notice them. I was so wrapped up with Florence and what was going to happen to her.

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  2. I haven't yet read The Help, but it sounds promising. I am glad you enjoyed this book, and despite the fact that you had some minor quibbles with this book, it does sound interesting to me. I am really curious about that box now!! Great review!

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  3. I am definitely adding this one to my wish list, it sounds GREAT! I haven't read The Help yet, so I am looking forward to that one as well. Great review!

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  4. Great review! I've been really curious about this book, and always trusting your reviews, I'm going to have to give this one a try.

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  5. That last quote you put up was all metaphor! I'm not sure how I would take an entire book like that, but I can see how it might work. The voice of the character definitely comes through - very Southern.

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  6. Like Ti, I didn't notice the similes. But then, I'm pretty oblivious about things like that.

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  7. This book sounds pretty interesting. I'm not sure how I will take an abundance of similes, but I'll still give this book a try. Thanks for recommending it.

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  8. I just won a copy of this one, hopefully I'll get to it sometime soon! I have to admit, it is a good bit longer than I expected.

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  9. reviews are so mixed for this one, I'll most likely skip it. too many other books to read

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  10. This one interests me, even with the mixed reviews I've read. I probably won't even notice the similes. LOL

    I know what you mean about wishing you hadn't read so many of the reviews of a book before you start it. I've had that happen too, where someone else's criticism or rave review stuck with me and then I end up either noticing the flaws or being disappointed that the book doesn't live up to expectation.

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  11. When someone points out a problem, it's hard to then ignore that problem. But it sounds like the book at least delivers in the end, and I could see why you wouldn't have felt that way about THE HELP. Thanks for a great review!

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