Title: the Queen of Palmyra
Author: Minrose Gwin
Who Should Read It? If you can handle feeling tortured on the inside, and if you know how to appreciate good writing, read this book.
What I Have to Say: Minrose Gwin is one of those writers that just knows what she's doing. It doesn't seem like she just woke up one day and decided to write a book. It seems more like she worked hard at it and studied and learned how to become a writer. Which is a good thing. Her prose felt so perfect and natural that it just seemed like it had to have been learned. No one with that amount of talent could have just "decided to have a book" and miraculously have it turn out as the Queen of Palmyra. It is just too well-written.
The Queen of Palmyra is a deeply touching, deeply affecting novel. 11-year old Florence grows up in 1963 in Mississippi. Her education is lacking, and her loyalties are separated between her cake-baking mother and her racist father, who allows her to practically be raised by her grandparents' black maid. Through Florence's uncomprehending eyes, the reader comes to understand just how horrifying it must have been to grow up in small town Mississippi during this time. She loves her father, and she loves her mother, and she loves Zenie, and she is completely oblivious to the tension between them.
It is Florence's innocence, really, that makes this book so amazing. Somehow, Minrose Gwin manages to reveal all to the reader through a narrator that didn't understand all. She composes an intricate, complicated story with well-developed characters and believable, torturous events. I have no doubt in my mind that some of these things probably happened. Nothing could have prepared me for my reaction to this book. I'd heard that it was painful, I'd heard that it hurt to read, but it was more than that. Florence's innocence and the way she was just pulled along by the events, by the horrors that her father committed and her mother's inability to escape him, was torturous. I felt for her, I cried for her, I wished that someone would explain things to her, but at the same time I was glad that they didn't. Because she might not have survived if she had really understood her father.
Racism was such a big issue back then, and Minrose Gwin approached this issue in a valid, believable, horrifying way. It's obvious that Gwin herself must have grown up in a place where racism is still a palpable thing. There is no way that she could have described it with such precision and grace otherwise. It felt like she was in the minds of her characters, and as such, I felt able to step into their shoes for a moment. And I wanted out.
I don't really know what else to say, other than read this book. The summary calls the summer turbulent, and that really is the best word I can think of to describe this book. Turbulent. Turbulence that you will enjoy. It's not an easy read, and you can't expect it to be. But it is enjoyable, and it will affect you, and you will be glad that you did decide to read it.
"I need you to understand how ordinary it all was. . . ."
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.
Minrose Gwin's The Queen of Palmyra is an unforgettable evocation of a time and a place in America—a nuanced, gripping story of race and identity.
Cover Story: I love this cover. Florence's innocence and sadness is conveyed perfectly. It is so appropriate.
Disclosure: This book was sent to me for review by the publisher. This in no way affected my review.