Summary: In the turbulent southern summer of 1963, Millwood's white population steers clear of "Shake Rag," the black section of town. Young Florence Forrest is one of the few who crosses the line. The daughter of a burial insurance salesman with dark secrets and the town's "cake lady," whose backcountry bootleg runs lead further and further away from a brutal marriage, Florence attaches herself to her grandparents' longtime maid, Zenie Johnson. Named for Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, Zenie treats the unwanted girl as just another chore, while telling her stories of the legendary queen's courage and cunning.
The more time Florence spends in Shake Rag, the more she recognizes how completely race divides her town, and her story, far from ordinary, bears witness to the truth and brutality of her times—a truth brought to a shattering conclusion when Zenie's vibrant college-student niece, Eva Greene, arrives that fateful Mississippi summer.
Minrose Gwin's The Queen of Palmyra is an unforgettable evocation of a time and a place in America—a nuanced, gripping story of race and identity.-- Harper Perennial
Wow! THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA by Minrose Gwin actually blew me away. So much so that I'm not even sure where to start. I mean... I really liked the novel, but that doesn't seem to capture how much this story affected me. This book just tore my heart out -- over and over again. It was gut-wrenching and at times and difficult to read. Yet, I found that I couldn't put this book down. It is one powerful read!
When I picked up THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA, I was expecting one of those books that deals with the 1960s Mississippi and all of the changes that were occurring at that time. In fact, I was expecting it to be along the same lines as THE HELP. Of course, a lot of the racial issues and tension between the characters were reminiscent of THE HELP; however, I thought this novel was much darker, and as a result, it affected me more and caused me to really think.
This novel is not for the weak-hearted -- trust me on that. It deals with some very heavy issues like abuse and racial tension. Topics that need to be remembered but aren't always easy to handle. This novel shows that there weren't always happy endings for the people involved in these situations. Some passages in this book are difficult to read and I promise you can't help but be affected by this story. What I did find very interesting is how the author chose to write some of the abuse/violent scenes. The writing in some ways was very subtle, yet powerful; and I found myself re-reading many of them. Her presentation of these scenes was extremely effective!
I loved so many of the characters in this book, but Florence really struck a chord with me. I absolutely fell in love with her, and I'm so glad that this story was hers to tell. She was young girl (about my daughter's age) who was living in such a horrific situation (in so many ways.) On one hand, I questioned how naive she was and wondered how she didn't see what was going on right under her nose. And on the other hand, I couldn't believe what she had to deal with and how she managed to survive. Often times while reading this book, I'd think of my 10 year old daughter. She's that age where she is torn between being a little girl and wanting to be grown up. Like Florence, she surprises me with her maturity and strength, yet she is also incredibly naive on some topics.
One thing that definitely struck me as I read THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA was the author's writing style. I thought this novel was incredibly well-written -- I mean seriously good. Ms. Gwin's prose was strong and beautiful, and her descriptions of the time period seemed to be spot on. But what really stood out to me was how literary this book was. (I'll be honest, I was just expecting a good story with memorable characters.) I thought the author did a magnificent job of not only telling this story and developing the characters, but also in incorporating so much symbolism into the novel. I really found myself thinking about the characters and interpreting the underlying meanings of this book even when I wasn't reading it (and long after I finished it.)
I have no doubt that THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA would make a fantastic book club pick, and I'm predicting that it's going to be a popular one over the next year or so. I honestly believe that you can't help but be affected by this novel, and I'm guessing that it is also going to evoke a lot of strong emotions in readers. I think those two reasons alone are enough to make it a great pick; however, this novel also has many things to talk about. Some of the themes that your group might explore include racial relations, family dynamics, friendship, abuse, choices, the importance of teaching/learning, and hope. You can see all of the discussion questions here. In addition, there is a great deal of symbolism in this book especially as it relates to the various stories that the characters told. Your group definitely could take some time to not only analyze the characters but also all of the stories!
I feel as if I've only touched on many of the parts of this novel that are so worthy of discussion. Rather than writing on and on, I recommend that you just read THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA. It is a highly moving book that will manage to stay in your thoughts long after you finish the last page.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.