Title: The Queen of Palmyra
Author: Minrose Gwin
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication Date: April 27, 2010
Paperback: 416 pages
From the Publisher:
"I need you to understand how ordinary it all was. . . ."
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.
A tale of strong women during exceedingly trying times, The Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin, is a heart-breaking story about the ignorance that did more than divide a town. Set in 1963 Millwood, Mississippi, the story describes a heavily segregated town divided into three sections, Millwood "proper", Milltown where the white working poor lived and Shake Rag on the south side of the colour line of town. Florence Forrest, who at the beginning of the novel is eleven years old, narrates The Queen of Palmyra. The reader views the segregated town and the effect it has on the inhabitants through the innocent eyes of Florence. Martha, Florence's mother, is a cake baker who happens to have a habit of going out to purchase beer from the non-white bootleggers on the same nights her husband goes out. Win Forrest cannot hold down a job, so finally he settles on selling burial insurance by day and is a part of the Klan in the evenings. Florence spends a great deal of her time in the care on Zenie, who tells her stories about the queen of Palmyra. Florence enjoys being with Zenie, her husband Ray and Zenie's cousin Eva. The excessively hot summer of 1963 brings about many experiences and changes to Millwood, which began when Florence proudly and innocently informs her father that Eva is trying to sell burial insurance in Shake Rag and to further fuel her racist father's fire he learns Eva is attending college, one purportedly to be filled with agitators, NAACP members, and followers of the Evers brothers. Florence is proud of Eva and looks up to her and what occurs that hot summer of 1963 shakes the very foundation of everything Florence ever believed. As an eleven-year-old she witnesses atrocities no one should ever have the bear, let alone a child. Florence was surrounded by extremely strong willed women who helped to ground her, educate her and help her to discover the true meaning of love, loyalty and compassion. The Queen of Palmyra is an extraordinary debut novel, filled with hardship, tragedy and life lessons. Gwin's characters are realistic and those who are good are indeed loveable and those who not are most definitely portrayed as such. Even though Zenie was paid to care for young Florence it was possibly one of the best things for her in addition to all the time she spent with her grandparents Mimi and Grandpops. The Queen of Palmyra is not an upbeat novel, yet a novel well worth reading, showcasing a part of history many never knew existed or would prefer to ignore. The Queen of Palmyra would be an excellent discussion group pick.
About the Author:
Minrose Gwin is the author of the memoir Wishing for Snow, cited by Booklist as "eloquent" and "lyrical"—"a real life story we all need to hear." She has written three scholarly books and coedited The Literature of the American South. She teaches contemporary fiction at UNC–Chapel Hill and, like her young protagonist, grew up in a small Mississippi town.
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I received a complimentary copy of The Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin from TLC Book Tours to be a part of this tour and offer my honest review of the novel. Receiving a complimentary copy in no way reflected my review of aforementioned novel.