Friday, April 6, 2012
Last year, I really enjoyed a novel by Lynne Bryant called CATFISH ALLEY. (You can read my review here.) I love Southern fiction and I find that I don't read near as much of it as I would like. So when I learned that Ms. Bryant had written a new novel ALLIGATOR LAKE that explores racial tensions in Mississippi, I was certain that I wanted to read it. This might sound awful, but I was curious to see if Ms. Bryant could follow-up her debut novel with another winner.
I have to say that I think Ms. Bryant did it again with ALLIGATOR LAKE. With two books under my belt, I can now say that I'm definitely a fan of Ms. Bryant's, and I am extremely impressed with her writing style. Not only is her prose gorgeous and her character development really good, but she also tackles some pretty heavy issues (namely racism) head on. I love how she gives this Northern girl some insight into the customs and traditions of the South!
ALLIGATOR LAKE is a complex novel about three generations of women in the Pritchett family. The story begins when Avery and her daughter Celi returns home to Mississippi for her brother's wedding. Avery fled from her hometown when she discovered she was pregnant with a mixed race baby hoping that she could bring her child up in a more tolerant place. For ten years, she has cut almost all ties with her family and the Celi's father; however, when she discovers that Celi has sickle cell anemia, she desperately needs some questions answered. You see, for a child to have sickle cell anemia, he or she must inherit the gene from both the mother and father. That means that somewhere in Avery's bloodline, there is black blood!
Avery reluctantly returns home (you could say she has a bit of a chip on her shoulder) and discovers that while many things have changed in Mississippi, many other things unfortunately remain the same. While Avery loves spending time with her grandmother, she still finds that her relationship with her mother is very strained. In addition, she discovers that her hometown is still as prejudiced as it ever was; and her daughter is learning that her mixed-race heritage makes some people treat her negatively. Over the course of the novel, Avery attempts to uncover her family's secrets and is ultimately shocked by the final reveal. Avery must then reconcile her ties to her past, while also deciding what is best for her and her child.
ALLIGATOR LAKE is an extremely complex novel that explores so many universal themes. Most obviously, this book looks at racial relations in Mississippi over the past 50+ years, and it's quite a disturbing story. Ms. Bryant grew up in Mississippi during integration, and she does a wonderful job of delving into this issue. I think she tries to make sense out of something that doesn't always make a lot of sense, and I appreciated how this novel tackled the subject of mixed race children. Just when I think we've come a long way in this country towards tolerance and acceptance, I learn about another case of mistreatment! ALLIGATOR LAKE demonstrated to me some of the reasons why these things unfortunately keep happening.
While I will never truly understand how some people can be so prejudiced, I thought Ms. Bryant did a good job of presenting Avery's mother Marion's point-of-view with compassion and fairness. She didn't condone her beliefs, but she did show how Marion loved her granddaughter and struggled to find the courage to stand-up to her so-called friends. Bigotry is such an ingrained part of certain cultures and it's not always easy to do the "right" thing, so in some ways, I did feel bad for Marion (but not that bad.)
There were many other aspects of racial relations that Ms. Bryant covered in the pages of ALLIGATOR LAKE, but I also appreciated some other parts of this novel. I loved how she wrote the story through the eyes of three different generations of women -- Avery, Marion, and Marion's mother Will. Not only did their stories show the evolution (or sometimes lack there of) of racial relations in Mississippi over time, but it also shows their complex relationships with each other. Will was quite a force to be reckoned with and has devoted her life to helping blacks learn to read, while Marion has done everything to distance herself from her mother and be part of "the establishment." Similarly, Avery has rebelled against Marion and, rather than dealing with her, just ran off to Denver so she wouldn't have to address the issues. All three of the women are still trying to resolve lost loves from their past; and by the end of the novel, I think they realize that they have more in common with each other than they first thought. And they begin to respect each other and start the healing process for the family.
Believe it or not, I've barely touched the surface of the depth of this novel, but I think the rest is best left to discover on your own. There are layers upon layers of secrets in this family, and I thought Ms. Bryant did a terrific job in pacing the story and eventually revealing all of the secrets. By using three different narrators as well as a ton of flashbacks, the story is presented beautifully; and I honestly didn't know where the book was going to go. I loved the lessons that each of the characters learned, and I think there are many powerful messages in this story for readers.
I would love it if my book club read and discussed ALLIGATOR Lake. I am pretty sure that all of my friends would enjoy this story and there is no doubt that's there's plenty to talk about. There is a reading guide included in the back of the novel which includes eleven great questions. Some of the topics you might want to explore include racial relations, mother/daughter relationships, illness, first love, social conventions, friendships, forgiveness, and, of course, secrets. Ms. Bryant also includes some delicious-sounding Southern recipes on her website which would be the perfect complement to your book club meeting.
I love good Southern fiction and Ms. Bryant definitely delivers in ALLIGATOR LAKE. Highly recommended!
Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this novel.