Sunday, December 13, 2009

Pulitzer Project: Scarlet Sister Mary

Scarlet Sister Mary earned author Julia Peterkin a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1929.  It is, by today's standards, a curious book. 

Of course, it was no doubt viewed as a curious book when it was published.  It is set in a small black rural community in South Carolina in the early 1900s.  The setting is, in fact, a cotton plantation where the people live in cabins that are obviously the former slave quarters. 

As Peterkin tells us, the Big House has been abandoned since the Civil War, but the descendants of the slaves are still on the plantation, still farming (either as hired hands or share cropping, the book never makes that clear) and managing to make a decent (by their standards) living for themselves.  Every major character in the book is black, and much of the dialogue is written in dialect meant to convey the actual speaking patterns of the people.  One synopsis I read described them as speaking Gullah; I wouldn't know, but will note that, although some of the dialect struck me as odd, it wasn't distracting.  Peterkin writes with sufficient skill that the speech patterns seem more poetic than patronizing.  I've read a number of books where authors attempt to have characters speak in the vernacular, and it comes as across as stilted or condescending.  Not here.  Peterkin definitely had a poet's ear for language.

Peterkin was born in the South Carolina low country, and spent her adult married life there.  She was intimately familiar with the region and the people she describes in Scarlet Sister Mary.  She also obviously had tremendous respect for her characters.  At a time when African Americans were generally portrayed in fiction in terms of racial stereotypes (Mammys, Sambos, and so on), Peterkin did something radical:  she described a group of people who were simply that, people, men and women going about their daily lives as best they could and experiencing the same problems as everyone else:  love, romance, worrying about their children, and hurrying to get the house looking nice when they realized company was coming.  They're not some exotic Other; they're just ordinary folks trying to live their lives the way they always have while coping as best they can with the resources they have.

The title comes from the heroine of the book, Mary.  She's Sister Mary because she was baptized into the church and therefore is a sister, and she's scarlet because she messed up.  Her initial sin was dancing on her wedding night, but she added others as the years went by.  Her scarlet status gave the church deacons an excuse to expel her from church membership, although it's clear that being kicked out of the church for sinning and being able to keep right on attending the meetings are two different things -- it's not unusual for someone to be expelled, rejoin, and get expelled again on a regular basis.  The big difference with Mary is that having been expelled as a teenager, she doesn't try to rejoin again for many years.

And that's where I had my biggest problems with this book -- the religious element.  Mary had a conversion experience when she was about 12 years old, was baptized, but then is expelled for the sin of dancing.  She has no use for God again until many years later when she's hit hard by a personal tragedy.  Then, emotionally devastated, she has another conversion experience.  No doubt to a believer, it would come across as a wonderful, uplifiting ending.  To an atheist, not so much. 

Overall, though, this was a fun book to read.  Peterkin had an anthropologist's eye for capturing folkways.  Her descriptions of the church services, with the formal service followed by the women's shout, a tradition that had obvious roots in African tribal culture and rituals; the birth-night celebrations (again with women chanting and stomping in a circle); funeral customs that dictated that a coffin could not be placed into a grave until sunlight had touched the bottom of the grave and that the burial itself took place right after sundown; and various folk cures and superstitions all help ground her characters.  As the story progresses, you can see change to the old folkways creeping in:  a burial society is formed where before no one thought one was necessary, more of the children start going to school and learning to read and write, more machinery is being introduced resulting both in a higher risk of injury and fewer workers being needed, the boll weevil makes it so hard to survive farming cotton that more and more of the young people leave to find work in the cities.  But that's primarily background -- the focus is always more on Mary's emotional life, what's happening with her, her relationships with the people around her, and, ultimately, her relationship with God.

One thing that really struck me while reading Scarlet Sister Mary was how much it resembled Zora Neale Hurston's book Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was published in 1937 and is, at least as far as I'm concerned, one of the most overrated and unreadable books I've ever had the misfortune to pick up. (It's also one of the rare books that I simply flatout could not finish.) I've never been able to figure out why it's garnered so much praise over the years (the novelist Alice Walker, for example, loves it and has written numerous essays proclaiming it's one of the best books of all time), and I'm even more convinced now that Hurston has been over-hyped. 

Although I wasn't too thrilled with the denouement turning out to be whether or not Mary  found Jesus again, overall I enjoyed reading Scarlet Sister Mary.  Julia Peterkin could write.  I'm really surprised I'd never heard of her before I started this Pulitzer Project; she's a lot more readable than some most of the Southern writers that have received a lot more page space in literature classes and critics' commentaries. 

Next up on the list, another one that's an unknown:  Laughing Boy by Oliver LaFarge.

1 comment:

  1. I am still enthralled by this project you're doing. I was reading your review and thinking that it reminded me of something. Then Chloe walked into the room at the same time I got to your paragraph about Their Eyes....yep - that's it. She shares your opinion of that book. Hated it. Couldn't finish it. Considers it highly overrated.


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