The award-winning Knee-Deep in Wonder by April Reynolds is a look back into the Deep South to the lives of African-American women "three generations deep." At the start of the novel, the year is 1976 and Helene is a single woman in her mid-twenties. Helene resides in Washington, D.C., but she returns "home" to Lafayette County, Arkansas, when her Uncle Ed tells her that Aunt Annie B. has died. Ed and Annie B. raised Helene when she was a child despite the fact that Helene's mother, Queen Ester, lived in the area. Helene received a solid upbringing from Uncle Ed and Aunt Annie B., but a small yet persistent hole still exists in Helene's heart for the mother she never really got to know (nor her father).
When Helene arrives in Arkansas, she assists Uncle Ed with the funeral arrangements and begins to ponder about Queen Ester attending the upcoming funeral service. Despite Uncle Ed's cautioning to leave the past behind her, Helene takes Uncle Ed's hand-drawn map and drives out to Queen Ester's place - a large, cavernous home situated on a dense, overgrown acreage. While Helene is nervous and expects that Queen Ester will send her away without even a brief invitation inside for a cup of tea, Helene wants the opportunity to persuade Queen Ester to attend the funeral service. Also, Helene has many questions to ask her mother about her own childhood and her family.
Armed with family letters so old they are relics, Helene knocks on Queen Ester's door and is pleased but shocked when she readily is invited inside her mother's home after so many years of being unwelcome there. The house and perhaps Queen Ester herself appear to be stuck in a timewarp of sorts, and it is apparent that Queen Ester has not left the home in many years. What begins as a timid mother-and-daughter conversation blossoms into a forthright and sometimes alarming "discussion" of family history and secrets spanning three generations: Helene, Queen Ester and Liberty, who is Queen Ester's mother and Helene's grandmother.
Knee-Deep in Wonder goes back and forth in time as the reader comes to know the lives of these three interesting and at times incredible African-American women - Helene, Queen Ester and Liberty - and their interwoven reltationships with each other, their family and their friends. Much of the story is set during times when discrimination was still rampant and poor treatment and poverty did not escape many of the the characters in this well-written novel. A handful of strong-willed but imperfect male characters and Liberty's friend, Mable, round out this historic story of the sultry South wrapped in Queen Ester's memories. Reynolds' writing style (which reminds me a bit of of author Alice Hoffman) is simultaneously mesmerizing and courageous as three generations of women exprience love, loss and longing in the Deep South. Knee-Deep in Wonder is recommended to fans of literary fiction and fans of African-American fiction.