Review: The Queen of Palmyra

The Queen of Palmyra
Minrose Gwin
April 27, 2010

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

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.

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—a truth brought to a shattering conclusion when Zenie’s vibrant college-student niece, Eva Greene, arrives that fateful Mississippi summer.

The Short of It:

I loved this book. The story deals with some heavy themes but as it unfolds, it sort of falls gently upon your shoulders and really allows you to experience it and take it in.

The Rest of It:

To be clear, I really loved this book. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened its pages but what I found inside was a real treat. Sometimes you fall in love with a book because of the writing. Other times, you fall in love with the characters or while reading it, you just find yourself lingering over every piece of it because it just “fits” you. Although the writing is lovely, what I really enjoyed about this book was that it was filled with wonderful characters and it just seemed to fit me as a reader. It was a good mix of childhood adolescence and larger adult themes.

The story is told from Florence’s point-of-view and at the age of eleven, she pretty much tells it like it is. She’s wiser than her years in many ways but at times her innocence comes through and reminds you that she is in fact, just a child. As tensions rise and race continues to divide the community, she struggles to find her place and is sort of swept away with the tide, bouncing from one household to another and not really fitting in anywhere. As rough as this period is for her, I found myself rooting for her, knowing that she’d come out of it okay. Maybe not perfect, but okay and if you’ve had a rough childhood, okay is pretty darn good.

Although I found myself relating to Florence the most, I enjoyed many of the other characters even though I never really liked them. In other words, these people would not be my friends, but the author makes them fleshy and whole and spends a great deal of time giving us all of the wonderful details that make them who they are. The smells, the oily sheen of hair oil upon a head, the way they carry themselves, etc. These characters don’t have to say much. There are moments when all they do is sit or stare but somehow the author conveys their thoughts through their posture and mannerisms. It takes skill for an author to speak volumes while the character remains mute.

When Eva Greene arrives, it’s as if the door to Florence’s world suddenly opens. Being around the same people day in and day out, you tend to get used to them but with Eva, Florence begins to notice things that she didn’t notice before and that’s when she begins to grow as a character. The presence of Eva made all things real.

If I had to compare this to another book I’d have to say that it did remind me of The Help, but just a little bit. The help (Zenie and Ray) do play a key role in this story, but the relationships are not as endearing as the ones in The Help. That’s not to say that weren’t as powerful. The relationships in The Queen of Palmyra were quite powerful but a bit more subtle.  As for Florence, she has the same feel as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird but she also reminds me of Francie from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. She definitely has her own voice though.

I could go on and on about this novel. If you pick it up (and I really hope you do) let me know so we can chat about it. This is one of those books that you want to discuss but so far I’ve only come across one other person who’s read it.

Minrose Gwin will be talking with Book Club Girl on May 17th. Click here for details!

The Queen of Palmyra comes out on April 27, 2010.

Source: This ARC was provided by HarperCollins.

28 thoughts on “Review: The Queen of Palmyra”

  1. I’ve been anxiously awaiting your review of this book since you first mentioned it and now I can say your enthusiasm is contagious. I LOVE books like this, especially when told through the eyes of a child. This one is going on the top of my Wish List! Great review!

  2. this sounds really good, I’ll have to see if my library is going to carry it.

    Have you read Heartbreak Hotel by Anne River Siddons? It has a similar theme, only college kids, not a child.

  3. After that review I definitely need to read this one! I almost picked up when I was shopping on Friday but passed it up…darn it! lol

  4. I just finished this book and loved it too! It was gut-wrenching at times for me to read though. I was pleasantly surprised by how well it was written!

    1. I found myself re-reading passages. Some parts were tough to get through, not because they were graphic but just because they were so subtle, yet we KNEW what was going on.

  5. Well this makes me so glad I’m on the tour even though I knew I really didn’t have time to read yet another book before graduation. It sounds like it will be a nice way to take my mind elsewhere.

  6. I just read Rebecca’s review of The House of Tomorrow, which she demands I read. Now this. I think I just need to bow out of all of my challenges and read all of the recommendations from my blogger friends. That would keep me busy until forever! Nice review…I can sense the love!

  7. I read the whole book today…I couldn’t put it down. It reminded me a bit of The Help, too, but only because of Zenie and her attitude.

    Flo kept breaking my heart. Despite everything, she just kept plugging along.

  8. I don’t know how I managed to miss your review when you first posted it (or maybe I read it and didn’t comment and have forgotten all about it, which is also possible), but I so want to read this book now! Thanks for commenting on my review of Gwin’s latest, which prompted me to check out your great review!

    1. Queen was a great read. I’ve since passed it on to members in my book club and they all enjoyed it.

      Visit my blog: Book Chatter

  9. No wonder I fell in love with this book! I didn’t make the connection to Francie (my all-time favorite character since I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as an adolescent) and Scout until I read your review, but there it is! I’m introducing my students to the novel this week; they are perceptive kids, and I can’t wait to see where they go with this! Class discussions and writing are going to be FAB-U-LOUS! Thanks for your review…I’ve read some bad ones of the novel, and I know, to each his own, but in terms of literary merit, I will fight for this one!

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