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Book Review: The Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin

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Occasionally the release of a novel fits so precisely into the jigsaw of current events that the author could be suspected of manipulating history for the sake of publicity. The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States was hailed as the beginning of an era of “color-blindness.” Yet, the more things change… In this past month, even as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee celebrated its 50th anniversary, the governor of Virginia instituted a Confederate History Month. Hate crimes are surging once again on college campuses in multi-cultural California. According to the NPR website, “the National Urban League outlined stark disparities in employment, housing, and health care between white Americans and blacks.” While, as a nation, we have indeed come far from the era of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and segregation, we face the risk incurred by history. With distance comes amnesia. The Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin sends one back into the heart of the civil rights storm. With intricate, precise imagery and a flawless voice, Gwin exposes the racial tensions of 1963 Mississippi through the eyes of eleven-year old Florence Irene Forrest.

“I need you to understand how ordinary it all was.” So begins Florence’s story, a story that seems, in the 21st century, to be far from ordinary. In 1963, Florence exists at the heart of conflicts that she can barely comprehend. With a father who receives mysterious phone calls at night, calls that prompt him to send Florence to the basement for a special box, and a mother who on the same evenings takes her on trips to the local bootlegger, to whom she hands “a little torn off piece of paper with some writing on it,” Florence’s world tilts on a precarious axis of racial balance.

Florence’s mother Martha is the daughter of educated parents, who had hoped for a better marriage for their only child. Despite the Forrest family’s poverty, Martha, who bakes cakes to supplement their income, has a sense of dignity and propriety that is out of keeping with her husband’s extreme bigotry and with the culture of the town in general. Martha tells Florence never to let anyone call her ‘Flo’. “…she believed in serious names. No Susies or Kathys or Judys or Peggy Sues. ‘You want a name that’s worth all this trouble,’ she would say to me.” Martha chides the ladies who come to buy her cakes for using the term “colored.” After the women leave, she tells her daughter, “Florence, listen to me, we say ‘Negroes’ in this house. I talked to Zenie and Uldine and Gertrude about this, and that’s what they all said they like to be called. Negroes. Never ‘colored.’”

The conflicts in Florence’s life go beyond the tones of skin or the layers of class. Despite, or perhaps because of, the violence she sees underlying her father’s nature, she desperately seeks his approval. Florence’s pre-adolescent acts of rebellion and contempt are reserved for those who provide the bulk of her nurturing. Unable to reconcile the undercurrents of her parents’ marriage, Florence pushes the boundaries, but her disdain directs itself always at Martha.

Much of Florence’s time is spent with Zenie, her grandparents’ maid. Named for Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra, Zenie enthralls the young Florence with tales of the mythic queen. Yet, Zenie’s love for Florence is not uncomplicated. The middle-aged Zenie knows well who and what Mr. Forrest is, and her hatred and fear of the father occasionally transfer to the child. “Once she burst out crying and shoved me away hard when I sidled up to see what was wrong. ‘Leave me alone, white folks,’ she said, and I could tell she’d read something that made her hate my guts.”

The stirrings of chaos erupt when Zenie’s niece Eva Green, a college student with ties to the NAACP, comes to town in order to sell insurance policies for the summer. With her education and activist leanings, Eva is the catalyst needed to ignite the volatile mixture of the town. When Eva is brutally attacked, the worlds inhabited by Florence collide irrevocably.

In The Queen of Palmyra, Minrose Gwin’s remarkable writing lends unexpected loveliness and redemption to a history of irredeemable ugliness. The intricacy of Gwin’s imagery humanizes and brings into uncomfortable proximity the cruelties of which men are capable. The Queen of Palmyra delves into a complex society and complicated family, never taking the easy out of absolutes. Actions and emotions layer and blend, the line between hero and villain blurs and twists. The conflicts faced by Florence become the conflicts that lie within each of us: the conflict between the self and the other, between hatred and love, respect and disdain. In the end, all are culpable, redemption comes to some.

The Queen of Palmyra releases Tuesday, April 27. Minrose Gwin will be heard on a call-in interview at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/book-club-girl/2010/05/17minrose-gwin-discusses-the-queen-of-palmyra.

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