The Queen of Palmyra, the debut novel by Minrose Gwin, will find a welcome audience in fans of Kathryn Stockett's The Help.
Both books are set in Mississippi in the 1960s, and deal with the changing relationship between blacks and whites. While The Help is told from the viewpoint of four narrators, The Queen of Palmyra is told by twelve-year-old Florence Forrest.
Florence is the daughter of Win, a burial insurance salesman who also happens to be a rabid Klansman. Her mother Martha drinks to excess, and bakes cakes out their tiny home to bring in some cash to this poor household. Martha despises Win's racism, and her attitude is not appreciated by Win or the small minded people in their town.
Flo spends much of her time at her maternal grandparents, in the company of Zenie, the maid. Because Martha drank so much, Flo spent a lot of time with Zenie, even going home with Zenie when she finished work.
Zenie's young, beautiful, smart niece Eva comes to stay during her summer break from college. Eva is of a younger generation, and she has different ideas about her place in life. She gets a job selling burial insurance policies, which causes conflicts with Win. These conflicts turn dangerous, and Eva is attacked.
When she won't back down and leave town, race relations come to a boil. Zenie and her husband Ray fear for Eva, and for themselves, as the Klansmen become bolder in spreading their violence and hatred.
Because Flo is a young girl, she doesn't completely understand what is going on. She loves Zenie and Eva, and her parents, and as children are want to do, speaks her mind. She can't reconcile why people she loves can't get along.
The author does a good job describing the atmosphere in this small town at the time, and the scene where Win takes his daughter to a Klan meeting is frightening and veers into creepy as Win puts his daughter in a robe and hood, and various men try to grope her. It is very disturbing.
I also thought that the complicated relationship between Zenie, Ray and Flo was well done. Zenie and Ray were frequently exasperated at having to care for a white girl who had been abandoned by her mother. While The Klan was terrorizing the black community, Flo would show up at their doorstep and not understand why she was not welcome.
The novel is filled with tension- between Win and Martha, Martha and her parents, blacks and whites, Zenie and Eva. The characters are believeable, people just struggling to live life as best they can under the circumstances. Some succeed (Zenie) but for others, life is too difficult (Martha).
Having Flo narrate the novel echoes Scout, the narrator of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, but that also has it drawbacks. Questions go unanswered, such as why Flo did not attend school, and what happened to them during the year she and her family "disappeared". I found that not knowing these things distracted me.
The Queen of Palmyra is a dark book, but it gives the reader a real look at the what life was like at that time in small town Mississippi. The turbulent relationship between blacks and whites, and between a young daughter who just wanted the love of her very different parents is hard to look at, and yet it gives the reader a real sense of empathy.
Rating 3.5 of 5 stars Thanks to Harper Perennial for providing a copy of this book.