The Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin – Book Review

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.

Buy this book from:
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*

This review was done with a book received from Erica at Harper Collins.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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8 comments to The Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin – Book Review

  • I think you’re correct that the relationship between Florence and Zenie was a good balance and not some happy Disney maid/charge relationship. Overall, I thought this whole book was probably more realistic than some others set in that time period. No hiding the truth.

  • That’s a great point you made about the relationship between Florence and Zenie. I think a lot of stories (be it movie or book) romanticize this kind of relationship in a retrospective manner—for the sake of either compassion or sympathy or drama, or because it’s usually written by that one loving side who remembers it one way—just so the reader can almost say “Aww there were a few good things about that time/situation” when it reality, it was probably a rarity.

    I’m excited to listen to the Book Club Girl show with the author.

  • I’m sorry that this didn’t meet your expectations, but I’m glad to see you still thought it was good.

  • Ti

    What you said about the movie and the director is a really, great way to discuss the author’s writing style. I love young protagonists but children are unreliable narrators so I often expect an adult voice to be guiding the story somewhat. Perhaps this is why the tense didn’t bother me so much. I noticed it, but I supposed I I chose to overlook it since I enjoyed the characters so much.

    I’m glad I read it and I look forward to Gwin’s next book.

  • The jury has been split on this one. I’ll have to probably actually touch this one before I decide whether to read it!

  • I’m currently reading this one. I’m not sure what I think about it yet.

  • Everyone seems to have mixed opinions about this book, though most have very positive things to say about it as you have. I’ve noticed tense can be really tricky sometimes, especially in books where the protagonist is looking back on his/her life. I might pick this up for the summer, since I’ve been pacing out my summer TBR pretty nicely. I haven’t read The Help (I know, I know), so the older black caretaker/young white child dynamic hasn’t bored me just yet.

  • Oh I’m glad you liked this one. I did too although I’ve read some reviews of people who didn’t. I can’t say I “enjoyed” it as it was tough material but I did absorb it all. I agree with your assessment of Florence and for some reason I could have done without the ending when she was older.