Monday, May 3, 2010

Book Tour: The Queen of Palmyra


Minrose Gwin (which, can I start out by saying how awesome of a name that is??) takes the reader to a dark place with The Queen of Palmyra, a chronicle of the summer of 1963 in small-town Mississippi from the perspective of 11-year-old Florence Forrest. The white residents of Millwood, Mississippi, have little to do with the black side of town, or "Shake Rag" as it's come to be called. In a town split by black and white, Florence can't figure out what belongs where.

Florence lives in a house built on secrets. Her daddy, Win, is a burial insurance salesman—the first job he's been able to hold in over a year—with secrets that Florence is too young to understand. Her mother sure understands them, though...and disapproves—this much is clear to Florence. Martha has established herself as the town cake-lady, baking cakes for the respectable white women while visiting the Negro bootlegger on the sly. With tension running rampant in the Forrest household, Florence spends a lot of her time at her grandparents house and with their black housekeeper, Zenie, and her husband Ray. When Zenie's college-aged niece Eva comes to live in Shake Rag and sell burial insurance to its residents, one resulting incident brings race relations in Millwood to a boiling point and begins to open Florence's eyes to the truth of the situation around her.

Gwin opens this book with this line: "I need you to understand how ordinary it all was," and to a naive Florence, everything was as she was used to. Florence is a product of her environment, and the author does a beautiful job of extracting a story from a very specific time and place. Each character plays a defined role in the life Gwin has crafted for Florence; and Florence is the one who gets to take a step back, almost as if she's pressing a 'pause' button and viewing her environment as it is rather than as she's told it should be. This story is more than anything an awakening of Florence as she starts to understand who her parents really are and how racism really affects both sides.

One thing you need to understand: Florence is telling this from her 11-year-old perspective...forty years later. She's reflecting on what she saw that fateful summer and how her limited knowledge can twist experiences and memories into an untruth. At one point, adult Florence states, " be an architect [of words and sentences], you have to understand context." Gwin uses brilliant metaphors about language and storytelling to illustrate how memories may be a lie because they aren't fully understood, and Florence is an incredibly strong voice that never seems to be dragged down by the abuse and ignorance in her life.

I've read several comments by people that compare this to The Help. If we're talking about books centered around race relations in the 1960s South, then yes, they are similar. But the tone of each is completely different. Gwin has written an honest and unflinching portrait of a time that is heart-wrenchingly horrifying but, at the same time, grips the reader with a thin thread of hope as you follow Florence's path to truth and enlightenment. I found it more Bastard Out of Carolina than The Help, but if you like Southern fiction—or just gritty, compelling fiction in general!—I highly recommend it.

Tune in to Blog Talk Radio with Book Club Girl on Monday, May 17th at 4PM EST as she discusses this book with author Minrose Gwin!

This is the first stop for The Queen of Palmyra on its TLC Book Tour! For the list of other stops throughout the month of May, visit here.

Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours.


trish said...

Well, I was excited about this book before, but now I can't wait to read it! And I'll definitely be checking out Bastard Out of Carolina.

And how true it is that "limited knowledge can twist experiences and memories into an untruth"!

Thanks for being on the tour!

softdrink said...

I read this yesterday in pretty much one sitting. I didn't want to put the book down.

I didn't know it was on tour, though! I should hurry up and write my review before I read everyone else's.

Kari said...

Ha, that is why I'm glad I was the first tour stop; I had so much to say that I didn't want to be influenced by everyone else's reviews! I am excited to read them all now and see what everyone else found poignant about the book.

Glad you enjoyed it, Jill. Looking forward to your review!