The Queen of Palmyra
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.