Monday, September 24, 2018

Book Review: ZORA AND ME: THE CURSED GROUND by T. R. Simon

First Paragraph(s): There are two kinds of memory. One is the ordinary kind, rooted in things that happened, people you knew, and places you went. I remember my father this way: laughing, picking me up, singing lullabies in his gentle bass. I see him swinging my mother in a half circle, the hem of her blue skirt flying up to show the rough white thread she used for mending, like a bed of stars along a ridge.
The second kind of memory is rooted in the things you live with, the land you live on, the history of where you belong. You tend not to notice it, much less think about it, but it seeps into you, grows its long roots down into the richest soil of your living mind. Because most of us pay this second kind of memory no mind, the people who do talk about it seem to us superstitious or even crazy. But they aren't. The power of that memory is equal to any of the memories we make ourselves, because it represents our collective being, the soul of a place.
After losing my father, after nursing myself to sleep nights on end with glimpses of the past with him, I was well enough acquainted with the first kind of memory. But by twelve I was still too young to pay much mind to the memories held by the town we lived in, by Eatonville itself. 
That all changed the night we found Mr. Polk, his blood soaking into the earth. When I look back on that time I wonder how it had never occurred to me that Eatonville, America's first incorporated colored town, might have a history that stretched back beyond its name and my twelve years. How could I have thought our town began with Teddy, Zora, and me, that it had just opened into the infinite present of our young lives? Turned out we were living out Eatonville's history as blindly as pawns in a century-old chess game. We were no more new or free than the land itself, but like all young people, we confused our youth with beginning and our experience with knowledge. It wasn't until that night--when we heard the town mute speak to the town conjure woman--that Zora and I began to forge a real connection with the land, a connection that let us know ourselves through a past we hadn't lived but was inside us all the same.'

Take note of the length of the passage above, Esteemed Reader. I had to retype the whole thing (so any copy-editing errors in the passages are mine). You better believe I'm not working my fingers that hard without a reason. I believe that opening as presented is a thesis, or at least a preliminary argument for the book to follow. More on that in a moment.

I've been ninja-ing for a while, and if this is your first visit to the blog, where've you been? I've been here this whole time waiting for you. Sorry, Esteemed Reader, I lost my train of thought because some of you ticked me off by not reading my other reviews, but what I meant to say was  I've read a lot of middle grade books over the years, and I don't think I've read anything quite like this week's book before.

However this book should be classified, I like it. A lot. And you will too. If you don't want to be spoiled going in, put this review aside and go buy your copy. If you're not yet convinced, continue reading.

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground is not quite a young adult novel, but it's definitely upper-age middle grade. Alas, there just isn't a kid-friendly way to discuss slavery without pretending slavery was something less horrible than what it was (don't do this, even if you're writing a text book in a church in Texas). 

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground is not quite a historical accounting, even though it's drawn from historical events and features a fictionalized version of a Zora Neale Hurston. It's more of a story than an essay, but the book definitely has a formal message. It's a sequel, but I don't think you need to have read the first book to enjoy this one.

T. R. Simon catches up quickly:

I was staying with Zora's family for the week while my mama tended her employer's sick baby over in Lake Maitland. After Daddy died, there was just me and Mama. I was an only child. Alone with Mama I might have felt lonely in the world, but I had Zora, my best friend, my secret keeper, and my talisman against sorrow. From the time I was old enough to have a conversation, Mama always liked to tell how my three-year-old self toddled over to Zora, who was squirming and fussing one pew away from us in her father's church, grabbed her hand, and didn't let go for the next hour. Zora took a long look at me, tried once to shake me loose, then settled right down to the idea of us being joined. Zora's mother liked to say that after I took a hold of Zora, Sunday morning service once again became a place of worship and peace for her. I don't remember that at all. In fact, my own first memory of Zora has the roles reversed: instead of me grabbing her, she's grabbing me and pulling me with her as she scrambles after a lizard that turns out to be a baby diamondback rattler. My screams brought our parents running, and Zora was praised for saving me. Only, I knew there would have been no need to save me if she hadn't taken hold of me in the first place. But I never held the scrapes against Zora. She made life in a town no bigger than a teacup feel like it held the whole world. 

Our narrator is Carrie Brown, who is a sort of Watson to young Zora's Sherlock Holmes, or, if you prefer (and I do), her Ellicott Skullworth to Zora's Banneker Bones. Incidentally, I wondered about the aptness of comparing these two young black girls to two older white men (Watson and Sherlock, not Ellicott and Banneker), but after I wrote this, I watched the video below in which the author makes the same comparison, so we're good:). 

Zora and Carrie are on a new case, and it's a fun one (from a mystery writer's perspective). Someone has stabbed the local mute man who can't say what happened. The middle grade mystery doesn't open with a body, but there'll be bodies before it's done. Further intriguing, the mute man is able to whisper something to the town conjure woman.

Note how Simon is able to tell us so much about Carrie and Zora's relationship and their motivations in this simple exchange:

The secret Mr. Polk shared with Old Lady Bronson didn't excite me; it frightened me. "Honestly, Zora, maybe it ain't for us to know. Maybe there's some secrets folks just ought to keep."
She looked at me incredulously. "Carrie Brown, you can't be serious. How on earth are we gonna suck the marrow out of life if we just sit by and let questions stroll down our street without inviting them in for a glass of lemonade? Mama always says, 'Ain't no one ever got dumber trying to answer a question.' And I intend to answer all life's questions.

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground starts out rather tame-ish in 1903 in the town of Eatonville where all the inhabitants are black and doing as well as can be expected in America in 1903. But of course, white folks are at the edge of town conspiring to mess it all up because of course they are. And this is a book that gives us a very specific, and, sigh, accurate view of many white folks at the time (#notallgreatgrandmas):

There's nothing white folks won't do when colored folks have something they want.

No matter how clear our town borders seemed to me, they could be disregarded at any moment by white men who sought to hurt us.

Uneasy whites always bring black death.

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground  isn't going to be a favorite read of our Trump-supporting relatives, but they're not really readers anyway. This is a book for reasonable, thinking folks who can appreciate facts for what they are and an honest discussion of them. If that's not you, go ahead and watch your Fox News.

White people reading this book will be made uncomfortable, even the ones who listen to NPR and voted for Obama twice:) Good. This is uncomfortable stuff and should not be read easily. 

If you're a teacher considering not reading this book to your class because some of your students are a different race than you and you don't want things to get awkward, quit being a coward. Read this book aloud. Now. Don't wait until February--this is American history all year round. Awkward discussions need to be had, so fight through it.

Getting back to the book, you'll remember this town has a conjure woman. This is one of my most favorite character introductions of ever:

A shadow fell across the doorway. We looked up to see Old Lady Bronson. She was wrapped in a dark-gray shawl, her giant black cowhide bag hung against her right hip. With soldier boots that stopped below her knees and the still-dissipating smoke rising around her, the town conjure  woman looked every bit the part of a witch. The steel-gray hair I'd only ever seen her wear in a in a single tight braid down her back blew wild behind her, gleaming with droplets of rain. Her freckled skin glowed in the lamplight. Silhouetted against the lightning-filled sky, Old Lady Bronson looked electrified.

There's a lot more to Old Lady Bronson than first meets the eye, but I can't tell you much without spoiling. She's an extremely interesting character and I'd like to read a book that was just about her without any children detectives, but that wouldn't be very middle grade:) She's wisely employed here as someone who may or may not have the ability to curse things, which might come up in a book subtitled "The Cursed Ground."

And she's extremely useful as a plot device, again in ways I shouldn't reveal. But authors, take note at the way T.R. Simon deploys Old Lady Bronson to provide necessary exposition rather than flat out telling us how old these girls are:

I always tell folks that twelve is a changeling year, and it looks like you starting to have some sense with your twelve years.

Carrie has developed feelings for Teddy, a friend of her and Zora's, and there's some other drama in the present tense of the story, but we're not going to bother with that. Because just when the reader is settling in for a familiar middle grade read about our young detectives solving a mystery, Simon pulls the rug out from beneath them by flashing back to 1855 to discuss the adventure of two other girls, Lucia and Prisca.

They might almost be Carrie and Zora in another life, save for one crucial difference. Though the girls start as equal, when they move to America, the darker-skinned Lucia is designated a slave and worked to the bone, while Prisca remains free. And the telling of their story is brutal and unflinching:

I was terrified of what Prisca's tears could bring.
And so I shushed her, apologizing gently until her tears slowed.
In that moment I learned to be a slave even with Prisca. To bottle up my feelings and my fears so that she did not unleash the force of her own power, a power she herself barely understood. The power to be a whole person, her whole self, while I was now forced to exist as a fraction of a human being, a slave with no rights to my own self. What Prisca did not understand, but that I now did, was that the past meant nothing.
She answered me in a ferocious whisper. "Out there you're a slave, but in here we are as we always have been. In here, nothing has changed!"
The first year Prisca often pulled me into her bed during the night and wept onto my shoulder. I did not weep with her. I lay still, the flesh and blood doll she turned to when her loneliness became too hard to bear.

Prisca was defending me--not because I was a person and should not be sold, but because I was her property and could not be taken from her.

There are worse passages to follow, but I won't share them all. Lucia is whipped and beaten and subjugated and endures all manner of things that are unpleasant, but which children growing up in Trump country need to be made aware actually happened.

 Know, children, just what sort of awfulness that man intends when he says he wants to "make America great again." Know the history his "fine people" marching in Charlottesville would have us repeat.

There is violence in this novel, but it's mostly the emotional kind. And even though there's at least one death that's a bit more graphic than what I'm accustomed to in middle grade fiction, Simon is mindful to explain these complex adult subjects in a manner that's easier to digest for younger readers, without altering the truth of what she's discussing:

Zora's brow creased. "What a horrible choice: freedom for yourself or slavery with the folks you love."
Teddy shook his head and said, "Seems like no matter what you chose, running or staying, you must have had a broken heard your whole life."

As I said, that opening passage at the top of this review reads like the thesis of an academic argument as much as the opening of a middle grade novel, and I dig that so hard. Crank up your Bob Dylan, fellow English majors, and let's discuss the meaning of "The Cursed Ground." Oh, sure, there's a conjure woman, but the curse of this particular patch of American soil has far less to do with magic than the action of our ancestors. 

Much of the tension of this story comes from learning how the story of 1855 connects to the story of 1903, which of course it does, brilliantly. Without spoiling, one character late in the novel tells us, "Slavery is over, but tonight you saw how it still haunts us."

Once the reader understands that this book is as much an essay as it is a story, they can fully appreciate the closing arguments:

Zora was right: history wasn't just something you read in a book. It was everything your life stood on. We who thought we were free from the past were still living it out.

Mr. Ambrose rubbed his forehead. "Because slavery isn't far enough in our past yet," he answered. "What we're facing now is the unfinished business of slavery."
"When will it be finished?" Zora demanded.
"That's what I want to know," I added.
"I don't know, girls. White folks have a disease A disease that started with slavery. We taught ourselves to see colored folks as inferior so we could enslave them. And now we have a need to keep seeing them as inferior. White folks have become dependent on feeling superior to the colored race; no matter how low we fall, we can tell ourselves that the colored man is always lower."
"Do you think that, too?" Zora asked.
Mr. Ambrose took a full minute to respond. "It would be a lie to say I didn't. Every white man I know has the seed of race hate planted and rooted in him by the time he's reached his fifth year. This country is founded on it, and not even a civil war could uproot it. The only way to fight that hate is to consciously decide every day to choose against the hate we've been taught."

Thankfully, in 2008, Barrack Obama was elected president and racism was over forever in the United States and white police never again shot an unarmed black man and evil white people never repeatedly flashed white power hand symbols behind a would-be rapist supreme court nominee put forward by the most evil political party our nation has ever seen.

The past is still very much with us, Esteemed Reader, as we are all living on cursed ground. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. 

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground is an important book that should be made available in every classroom across this country as a primer for American children to learn about this political mess they're inheriting. Don't miss this extraordinary novel.

And don't miss author T.R. Simon's interview on Wednesday. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Zora and Me:The Cursed Ground:

A last flicker of lightning lit up his face, making invisible all the wrinkles of age for a fraction of a second and revealing the face of a troubled boy.

"You know how my mind works--once a question starts a fire inside me, I have to answer it, no matter how bad I get burned. There ain't no pain more painful than the pleasure I get from the light of truth."

For the first two weeks, when the two of us were alone, I allowed myself the fantasy that things between us were as they had been, that we still could enjoy each other's company in a time and place without slavery. It was a useless fantasy and a dangerous one. The present was a hell with no escape, and the past could change nothing about that.

Across his shoulder was slung the rifle he always carried, pressed tight against his lean frame like a second spine. 

House wasn't quite the right word. It was more like a shipwreck in the shape of a house.

The gun made the house feel like a cage set with a trap.

I burned with fear, sorrow, humiliation, and helplessness. And not one of Prisca's tears could extinguish that fire.

Zora elbowed me. She loved the way folks whose speech was plain as gray wool in normal times liked to trot out their biggest words on special occasions, as if they had been saving them up and didn't want to waste them on everyday things. We agreed that her father was king of the fifty-cent words, but there were a lot of dukes and earls and counts in the kingdom of Eatonville, too!

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: All reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

1 comment:

Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.