“Stories make us whole or tear us into a million pieces.” This novel does both in a jarring emotional journey through Mississippi in the 1960s as eleven-year-old Florence Forrest witnesses the changing face of history and race relations. While her mother bakes cakes for local women, Florence treads carefully in the complex emotional terrain of her childhood. Her father, Win, disappears for long hours at night, his monogrammed box held firmly under his arm.
Florence has a particular attraction to her grandmother’s maid, Zenie Johnson, absorbing the very different sights and sounds in Shake Rag, where black people grow grave and quiet in Win Forrest’s presence. Awakening to the particular tensions of race, Florence is sensitive to the arrival of Zenie’s college student niece, Eva Greene. In this long, fateful summer, Florence will come to understand the brutality that spreads an ugly web of fear from Millwood to Shake Rag.
Gwin’s trenchant prose is exquisitely balanced between the longings of a child to be loved and the deep fear that paralyzes her in the face of evil. Pulled from one side to another, from Zenie’s abundance to her father’s violent, unpredictable rages, Florence doesn’t know how to survive in the middle, left to her own devices by the absence of her mother and the crass stupidity of her father. Much as Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina evoked my rage, The Queen of Palmyra has the same effect, speaks to the same quiet places in my heart where right and wrong is clear and fear inhibits truth.
Left to make her own path through a morass of conflicted feelings, Florence clings to Zenie and her family, who cannot afford to protect the child and the nightmarish world her father inhabits, twisted by his own brutal childhood. It takes the courage of the few to change the face of history, but the road is strewn with those who know better and look the other way, with those who fear the burnings in the night and the cowards who hide their faces with hoods, with those who live with monsters and call them “daddy.”
Through the faltering voice of a child, Gwin tells a shattering story, where Byron De La Beckwith walks free after killing Medgar Evers, where the name Emmett Till brings to mind another tragedy. What is the voice of a child in such a place? Her head filled with stories - The Queen of Palmyra, Brer Rabbit, Nancy Drew and Uncle Wiggly - Florence sorts through the many faces of love and makes peace with an uncertain future. Gwin beautifully captures the emotional dilemma of a young girl who finds the world a dangerous place, where each choice is fraught with danger.