The Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin
Florence Forrest is a an eleven year old girl living in Millrose, Mississippi in 1963. Her home life is not good – her father is rather scary and mean and clearly involved in the KKK (although Florence doesn’t realize it), and her mother, who grew up in a well-to-do and fairly liberal household drinks excessively to deal with what her life has become. Neither one of Florence’s parents seem particularly keen to spend much time with her, either. As a result, Florence is shipped off to her grandmother’s house during the day, but be minded by her grandmother’s maid, Zenie. She goes home with Zenobia after work, as well, until her father comes and gets her at the end of the day.
Zenie’s full name is Zenobia, named after the Queen of the Palmyran Empire from the 3rd century, a woman purportedly more beautiful than Cleopatra. Zenie delights in sharing with Florence – who most of the time she merely tolerates – the stories of the Queen of Palmyra. Life for Zenie and Florence isn’t particularly easy or comfortable, but they get by. Until, that is, Zenie’s niece Eva comes to town and life begins to get complicated – and scary.
If you’ve been around the book blogosphere lately, you’ll know that almost everyone seems to really love this book. So, I have to admit, my expectations were very, very high when I started this book. Unfortunately, “The Queen of Palmyra” didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Don’t get me wrong, I thought it was good, and it came close, but it just fell short.
I adored Florence’s character. She was such a real little girl, strong and yet fragile, desperate to be loved. I also really appreciated that she and Zenie didn’t have this ultra-fantastic relationship crossing race and employer/employee lines. Florence loved Zenie, definitely, but that didn’t stop her from occasionally addressing Zenie in a voice of white privilege. And as much as Zenie seemed to feel a certain fondness for Florence, she also regarded her as one more take, one more chore. Zenie watched Florence because she got paid to do so, not out of a deep motherly love. That may seem like an odd thing to appreciate in a book, but I think the close relationship between the young white girl and older black woman is a little overused. Although I’m sure there were examples in 1963 of deeply caring bonds between young girls and their maids or governesses, I think there were likely a lot more were there was simply fondness or the love was only one-sided, and I was glad that Gwin chose to present that more realistic view of their relationship.
One thing I wish had been done a little differently is Florence’s voice and the tense of the book. As was said in the Book Club Girl show with Minrose Gwin, there were basically two narrators: Florence as an adult, looking back at the narrative and, inside of that, Florence as a child. Essentially one might say that most of the book was told inside Florence’s memory. It was as if the child’s voice was a movie of the events and the adult voice the director’s commentary. This was an interesting way to structure the book, but it lent a little unevenness to the writing. I didn’t necessarily notice from sentence to sentence what tense the story was being told in, but when it changed too often within a short period of time, those sections felt rough to me.
Overall I did very much enjoy this book, and I think it would be a fantastic book to discuss with a book club, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectation.
For those of you who have already read this book, or don’t mind spoilers, Minrose Gwin was on Book Club Girl’s show on Blog Talk Radio earlier this week and you can listen to the show.