In 1940 in the small town of Swamp Creek, Arkansas, heavily pregnant Emma Jean Peace hopes that after six boys she will finally give birth to the daughter she’s always wanted. For years Emma has dreamed of stroking a little girl’s hair, binding it with golden ribbons and having someone around the house who actually cares about dainty and frivolous things. For sure, Emma Jean deserves a girl - she needs a girl with every part of her being.
Forced to endure the constant childhood wrath of her mother, Mae Helen, she spent much of her teenage years praying for Mae Helen’s change of heart. Bottling up all the years of repressed emotion, it’s not surprising that Emma Jean finds herself embarking on a journey of self-deception, naming her new baby boy Perfect
and dreaming of all the girlish things they’re going to do together.
Gus, Emma Jean’s husband, is thrilled to have a baby girl, but he’s also proud of his six boys - James Earl, Authorly, Woody, King Solomon, Mister and even poor blind Bartimaeus. As the heavy May rains flow, eroding Gus’s makeshift stoicism, he’s finally sure this little girl will purge his vestiges of hurt. Gus, however remains blind to the selfish machinations of his wife, who is determined to accomplish the mission at hand. Emma Jean is positive that her plan will work just like she needs it to, after all: “men folks ain’t got no business in women’s affairs.”
The Peace men - indeed, the entire community of Swamp Creek - are quickly seduced by Perfect,
a pretty little girl with a smooth cocoa-brown complexion and extra long eyelashes
that make the Swamp Creek women call her a “pretty li’l thang.” While her brothers fawn over their new, gorgeous sister, only blind Bartimaeus detects something eerie about Perfect, sure there’s something not quite right down in her “private parts.”
With all of her lies in place, Emma Jean finds it almost impossible to extricate herself from the truth. Eventually, of course, the deception pours out, and the Peaces are forced to set about deconstructing life as the family knows it.
They've all fallen hard for Perfect in her pink dresses and her matching hair ribbons. But when Emma Jean decides to come clean and ask for forgiveness, she
doesn’t plan for Gus to gape at her like one prepared to destroy her.
Perfect’s innocent little world is suddenly shifting without her consent. Renamed Paul by a devastated Gus, he watches as his previous life oozes away and his brothers begin to usher him into a more harsh, less sympathetic reality. In this new life, governed by fiercely delineated gender politics, Perfect finds himself transfixed with a heavy heart and exposed to judgmental eyes of the folks in Swamp Creek who see him as an aberration
- at worst, an abomination.
Black perfectly portrays the Peace family in all of their generosity and stubbornness, private passions and intimacies, along with often violent histrionics. Although some of the later plot twists skirt around the edges of predictability, the novel’s empathy ultimately shines as life tests await courageous Perfect. While the author’s intimate examination of same-gender loving gives his tale a delicate irony, the Peace brothers’ achievements in the face of adversity imbue this novel with
a great deal of tenderness and warmth.