The Queen of Palmyra
by Minrose Gwin
Harper Perennial, $14.99, 390pp.
Florence Irene Forrest is a little girl with a loaded name. Martha Forrest, her mother, is the “cake lady” of Millwood, Mississippi, hiding the spoils of her bootleg runs under the sink in a bottle marked POISON. Her father, Win Forrest, is a burial insurance salesman, but it’s not the thought of their funeral costs that make people shudder when they see him pass by.
The Queen of Palmyra is a story of the summer of 1963 in the South, where the sun wasn’t the only source of unbearable heat, and the nights were more likely to burn than the days. Under the reluctant wing of her grandparents’ longtime maid, Zenie, young Florence begins to discover the power of color and the danger of hate, and is forever changed by the events she is forced to witness.
Born in a small town in the very deep southern end of Georgia, I heard familiar voices in Gwin’s novel—peculiar sentence structure, phrases nearly always ending in a lilt, and similes that would cause a resident of the South to nod and smile (you can’t get blood out of a turnip, you know). Gwin does well to situate the language of the time, place, and characters without using an overabundance of leading punctuation and phonetic spelling; “fixing to” is just as effective as “fixin’ tuh” when the author uses other clues successfully, and Gwin most certainly does.
Though the prose isn’t always lyrical or smooth, there are some sentences that really shine. In describing the fading health of one character, Florence says: “She lost flesh, and the bones in her body looked like sticks that had floated to the surface of her skin.” Gwin is also a master of subtle humor, especially when the joke is delivered through a child’s voice. When it was discovered at the altar that the communion glasses hadn’t been washed and were spotted with last week’s lipstick, parishioners were forced to use them anyway. And “Of course they drank from them,” Florence says. “What could they do? Turn down Jesus’s blood because of germs?”
The story is told by a retrospective narrator—adult Florence telling the story of her younger self from a distance of forty years or so. While Gwin’s writing of adolescent Florence rings very true, often the adult Florence is intrusive, and the voices become mixed in ways that are hard to follow. In spite of that, the novel flows quite well, and the glimpses we get of both devastated and confused young Florence and successful but deeply scarred adult Florence are wonderful contrasts, conveying the strength of love and the terror of hate through a child’s eyes, and the struggle of survival and the pain of memory through those same eyes some forty years later.