Title: The Queen of Palmyra
Author: Minrose Gwin
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Year: 2010 (Released today!)
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher
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.
This book simultaneously broke my heart and made it soar with joy. The Queen of Palmyra was a tough read. It was difficult to watch 11-year-old Florence, abandoned or neglected by her parents, witness events far beyond her years. On the other hand, Gwin’s marvelously woven story kept me itching to keep reading and happy that books like this exist in the world.
This book will inevitably be compared to The Help. Both novels are set in 1963 Mississippi amidst the growing civil rights movement. Both novels heavily feature black maids and their roles in the lives of the white families they serve. But these are completely different books. And if I have to pick my favorite, The Queen of Palmyra easily wins.
Florence is forced to overcome so many different adversities that all you want to do is reach into the book and give her a hug. But there are little glimmers of hope fluttering throughout the book.
Gwin’s ability to establish themes early on and keep them going throughout the novel without tiring them out is simply amazing. My favorite of these is the storytelling. As Florence discovers, everyone has their story.
“What I’d found out the hard way by that time was that people will get their own story like people get a dog and no other dog will do, no other dog is sweet and good like their dog. Zenie had her Queen of Palmyra stories, Grandpops favored Uncle Wiggly. Daddy though Bomba hung the moon.” 108*
As the adults in her life share their favorite stories with her, they become metaphors and Florence filters the world through these stories so that Florence swoops down like Bomba, comes to the aid of another like Uncle Wiggly, or adores someone as a Queen. The writing is simply wonderful and deserves to be read.
I could continue to list the things I loved about this book until you had all given up reading this post, but instead I’ll leave to you discover them on your own.
Other Memorable Passages:
“Some stories are uneasy sleepers. They roam a dark house, gliding like silk from room to room. Toughing a sleeping form here, tucking in a cover there. Maybe they will wake up on their feet and be confused as to their whereabouts. Or maybe they will unlock the front door without a sound and walk on down the street and out into the night, never to be heard from again. Because some stories can just up and leave. You don’t know where they went, or whether they’ll ever come back. Their leaving throws up its arms and leans forward into such an emptiness that the words rise up and say no.” 155*
“That’s when I got it. You can make up what happens and it can be that. Smooth as eating a piece of lemon meringue pie.” 187*
“I’d made him my shining star. But he was only a fleck of dust.” 259*
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*Page numbers refer to the uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version.