A few weeks ago, a friend asked me to share the title of a favorite novel for seven days and to nominate someone else to do the same. Fun, I thought. But then I realized the assignment wasn’t quite as much fun or as easy as I’d originally thought. How could I choose just seven? Still, I accepted his challenge and came up with a few dozen books—and then narrowed them down to seven: Ramona, The Road, Lila, Scarlet Sister Mary, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, State of Wonder, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Unless I get involved in another project, my intent is to share a little something about each book, something that makes each memorable.
Back in the 1980s, I was at a meeting with some English professors at Coastal Carolina University, and an unfamiliar term kept surfacing: DWEM. Curious about the term but not comfortable enough to admit my ignorance, I was glad when a colleague asked for me. Someone replied, “Oh, that’s our acronym for Dead White European Male (or of European heritage). We’ve come to realize that we’ve been neglectful of writers like Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, and Amy Tan and a little heavy with Dickens, Hawthorne, and Steinbeck.”
It as an Aha moment for me. I had sensed a shift in literature by men and women of different ethnicities and races, and after that night I embraced the change with great anticipation. The next afternoon found me in the Conway Library browsing for non-DWEM authors, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was at the first one I found.
Although I read the fictionalized autobiography over thirty years ago, I still recall the deep sadness I felt when learning of the injustice, abandonment, racism, and sexual abuse. I no longer possess the book, but I’m 99 percent certain that this volume, the first of seven, is the one describing the indignity she and her grandmother endured when the local white dentist refused to treat little Maya for a toothache. As I recall, he said he’d rather put his hand into the mouth of a rabid dog than the mouth of a black child. T
If Caged Bird woke me up to injustice, Scarlet Sister Mary gave me a view of plantation life in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.Written by Julia Peterkin in 1928, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel focuses on the lives of slaves on Peterkin’s plantation, especially Mary. While Peterkin was a Caucasian, her characters are not.
It’s not my intent to review the book but rather to say how masterful Peterkin is in using the dialect of the Gullah people and in portraying their emotions, wisdom, and behavior. About the dialect, here is part of a conversation between Mary and Maum Hannah, the woman who raised her. The conversation is about July, Mary’s husband who has left her and their baby, Unex, for another woman.
“Gawd laid a heavy hand on you, fo-true, gal, but you better be careful. E might knock you harder next time. Gawd is a strange Gawd. You better pray to Him instead o fretting so hard fo July. ‘Stead of looking down, you better look up. Git out and work. Sweat some evy day. It’ll help you to shed a lot o misery.”
The next day Budda Ben, Maum Hannah’s crippled son, comes to talk to Mary about the same thing and begins his message with, “I come to talk some stiff words, gal.” I loved that line right away and often use it to preface difficult conversations with my children. Stiff words–the perfect description of how to converse with someone who needs a reality check.
Mary wants to die and tells him so, but Budda Ben is hearing none of that. He tells her there “ain’ no use to be a-trying to die.We got to stay here till our time is out.”
There’s a lot more to their somewhat one-sided conversation, but here’s my favorite piece of advice from Budda Ben. He might have been a famous psychologist if the time and location had been different.
“You hold up you head, gal, an’ quit a-draggin you feet. Fo Gawd’s sake wash you face an’ wrap you hair nice an’ put on a clean dress an’ apron. Yesterday’s sun is set, Si May-e. Last year’s rain is dry. It’s better to let old sorrows sleep an’ think on what’s a-coming to-morrow. Plenty o to-morrows is ahead of you. Plenty of good to-morrows too, if you listen at what I’m a-tellin you.”
Scarlet Sister Mary is too rich and vibrant a book to do it justice in this blog. It’s a story about love, community, grief, heartache, disappointment, disillusionment, sadness, jealousy, and a myriad of other emotions. The characters are Gullah people who live on a plantation, and yet their trials and triumphs are like those of people everywhere.
Both books touched my psyche and expanded my awareness in ways that mountains of sociological and psychological material never will. The sociocultural element is apparent in both books, and so are the strong traits of perseverance, determination, and courage.