Scarlet Sister Mary
by Julia Peterkin
1929 Pulitzer Prize
4 stars - recommend with some caveats
Banned in Boston! Woo hoo! Now that's what I'm talking about.
Turns out there was a bit of a change by the stuffy old Pulitzer committee in 1929 and I say, "Hear hear!" The language of selecting the annual winner had heretofore called for a book which "best present[ed] the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standards of American manners and manhood."
Seriously? Get over yourselves.
That clause was changed to read "preferably one which shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life." Now we're talking.
The action takes place on a Carolina plantation sometime during Reconstruction. The players are entirely African American (startling in itself) who live in the old slave quarters of a plantation and scrape out a living by continuing to pick and sell cotton. Mary marries at the tender age of 15 and within a year her philandering husband has abandoned her and their infant son (conceived prior to the wedding - uh oh).
Mary decides to turn her back on the church which holds the little community in its grip and proceeds to engage in dalliances with a variety of nameless, faceless men, which results in her giving birth to nine children in about 15 years. No welfare mother she. Mary supports her brood through her hard (yet overly romanticized) toil in the cotton fields. She loves all of her children, cares for them as best as she is able, and continues to view men as tools. Go Mary!
The writing is seductive and drew me in quickly. Intentionally or not, the author does a fine job showing how difficult it can be at times to distinguish between extreme religion and belief in magic. In fact Mary gets better results from the local shaman than she does from all the bible thumpers chastising her for her lifestyle.
All that said, if this book were written today, I think the author would have a hard time finding a publisher. The author, herself a white woman who grew up on a southern plantation, never gets past the image of African Americans as "other." I applaud her discussions of primitive, human emotion, but also recoil from her need to populate her novel with a "primitive" population (at the time), thereby allowing the uptight, well mannered, white folk to reassure themselves that they are above all that. Given that this was a best seller when first published, methinks there were more than a few of those "Age of Innocence" corseted, whiny women huddled under the blankets, experiencing equal amounts of thrill and envy at Mary's scarlet ways.
So I'm recommending this novel as a period piece only.
All in all, I'm glad the Pulitzer committee pulled the plug out of their collective butt holes and awarded the prize to Scarlet Sister Mary. Hopefully the next few years of novels will be equally intriguing.