1929: Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin

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From the Dust Jacket:

In her new novel the distinguished author of Black April portrays with the same invincible reality the life of the Gullah negroes on the great Blue Brook Plantation. It is the life story of Mary, who at fifteen is a “slender, darting, high-spirited girl,” married to July, the wildest young buck in the quarters, and who twenty years later, with the old tumultuous love for him shaking her heart, laughs in his face and says, “If you was to come home cold and stiff in a box, I would look at you same as a stranger and no a water wouldn’ drean out my eye.”

In the bitter interlude while July has been roving, Mary, never leaving the home of her childhood, has travelled that strange contradictory road that runs through sin that is “pure scarlet,” to end in a fundamental human integrity that is not short of heroic. And the body of this splendid black Diane is as remarkable as her spirit.

A story full of the earth’s richness and the sun’s warmth; a story that goes far behind the polite screen of civilization to life’s naked elements of birth, growth, and death.

My Thoughts:

I will admit, I know very little about African-American life on the old plantations at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. I’ve read several books set in African-American communities within larger cities in the same time period, but the rural perspective is on that I did not have until reading this book, and as such, I really don’t have anything to compare it to. I also don’t know, and won’t presume to comment upon, the accuracy of Julia Peterkin’s description of plantation life.

Scarlet Sister Mary follows Mary, an orphan raised on an old cotton plantation by Maum Hannah, one of the pillars of the small plantation church. The community, which survives by continuing to grow cotton on the plantation for profit, revolves around the church, with a few exceptions, and so Mary gains the title ‘Sister’ when she becomes a member of the church. However, Mary’s life soon comes into conflict with the church beginning on the night of her wedding to July, the most popular, and most restless, young man in the community.

July represents the side of the community in opposition to the church, though never in a hostile manner. July enjoys dancing (which is means for being kicked out of the church, and the first of Sister Mary’s conflicts with the church) and gambling and drinking. He is concerned primarily for himself in all his actions, but has a youthful vibrancy that is attractive, not only to Mary, but to many of the (especially younger) members of the community.

The other side of the community, which is tolerated and accepted by the church, is the superstitious side, which manifests itself in many ways, but is personified in old Daddy Cudjoe, who makes charms and concoctions for the members of the community based on the old knowledge brought over from Africa. Magic is even described as “the only power that will work as well for a sinner as it does for a Christian.” Elsewhere, the characters are constantly mentioning superstitions based on animals, the weather, or any number of things as portents both good and evil in their lives, and take measures accordingly.

After being kicked out of the church for dancing on the night of her wedding, Mary further draws complaint when her first child is born only a few months after her wedding. As July takes up his roving ways and disappears, Mary continues to have children with a variety of different men, and remains outside of the church community. However, the church is as quick to forgive as it is to judge, as shown in the character of Budda Ben, Maum Hannah’s crippled son. Budda often loses his temper, and usually ends up cursing at the children who taunt him, and is always kicked out of the church, but after he comes back repentant, they always let him back in, until the next time he loses his temper.

Mary is in a different situation, though. After twenty years of sin, and numerous children all from different fathers, the church needs a clear sign of true repentance from Mary before they will be willing to let her back in, and for most of the book, Mary is flagrantly unrepentant. She speaks casually about not being tied down by any one man, and flaunts her children around the community with none of the shame or guilt that the church members believe she should have. Mary seems content to be one of the community who remains outside the church, and often says that she will come back to the church when she’s older and tired of having her fun.

There are two things that work to change her mind, however. The first is her daughter’s pregnancy. When her daughter has a child and attempts to disguise it from her own mother, Mary realizes that while her daughter has followed the example that she set, she has the guilt and shame that Mary never had. The second event that serves to push her back to the church is the return of her first child, the son she had with July, and the person who is described as her “heart-child.” Through the events following his return, Mary is pushed back toward the church in a moment of redemption that would feel like too easy of an ending for most any other book, but is the obvious conclusion that the entire book is working toward, and works better than I thought it should.

I found nothing impressive stylistically with the book. The prose is nothing special, and the pacing is, if anything, a little awkward, jumping forward years at a time at points that feel unnatural and forced. But the characters and the setting make the book. It is a window into a world that no longer exists, and a world that I will never fully understand, but this book provides one view of those African-American communities in the decades after the abolition of slavery, when they were still struggling to make a life and find a freedom on the same land that had enslaved their parents.

Favorite passage:

Instead of reading all the time out of books and papers covered with printed words, he would do better to learn how to read other things: sunrises, moons, sunsets, clouds and stars, faces and eyes. Everything had its way of speaking and telling things worth knowing. Even the little grass-blades have their way of saying things as plain as words when human lips let them fall. Book-learning takes people’s minds off more important things. The faithful old superstitions, the choice bits of wisdom passed down by word of mouth ever since the first slaves were brought here to live were never written down in any books.

Why you should read it:

It’s an interesting look at plantation life following the abolition of slavery, and the ways in which religion and superstition played heavily into their lives. The writing has it’s moments, but it seems like it has more cultural value than stylistic value.

Currently reading: Victim and Victor by John R. Oliver

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One thought on “1929: Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin

  1. Hi James, I’ve been working on Julia Peterkin for two decades, with yawning intervals in between spurts of work. I’d love to hear your take on her book assuming that you read it without really knowing much about the context or facts of life for rural black southerners c. 1900-1920. If you are interested in being interviewed, please email me: robeson@caa.columbia.edu. Thank you, Elizabeth

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