I was captivated by this book and read it in one weekend – yes, I hardly did anything else and my poor child often went hungry. (He spent the night with a friend on Saturday and told me they went up to the Spar for breakfast the next day and he had two doughnuts – yech.)
I couldn’t put the book down although the subject matter is so awful that I sometimes felt my stomach clench and I wanted to get right into the book and rescue the main character. I found myself putting the book down for half an hour or so and then having to go back to it to read on.
The story is told by a young girl, Florence Forrest, who lives in Millwood in the southern states of America in 1963. The town is racially segregated (reminsicent of our apartheid days) and the blacks live in a part of town called “Shake Rag”. Both Florence’s parents are dysfunctional. Her father, Win, is the leader for the Klu Klux Klan in Millwood, although Florence is innocent of this fact through most of the book, and just accepts that her father goes on ‘outings’ with his magic black box (which we find out contains his black gown and hood). Her mother, an alcoholic, hates her husband, who borders on being physically abusive, and when he goes out on his ‘outings’, she takes Florence with her in the car to Shake Rag to buy illlicit booze.
Florence’s saving grace is her grandparent’s maid, Zenie Johnson. Florence doesn’t go to school because of a spate of illnesses and her mother drops her off with Zenie every day. Zenie looks after Florence as though she is just another chore, but provides stability for the neglected young girl.
Just as you think that Florence’s life is pretty awful, her mother drives into a train in a suicide attempt, yet somehow lives. She is sent to a mental institution for a while and then doesn’t come back home, leaving Florence with her creepy father. He is a revolting man, hated by many in the town, who tries to inveigle Florence into joining him in his despicable racism. Slowly, as Florence matures, she develops an insight into her father’s cruelty, yet her mind will not let her admit his absolute evilness, even when she witnesses his murder of Zenie’s niece.
The day her father threatens to kill her if she reveals the truth about him, she runs away to her grandmother and together they flee to Florida to her grandmother’s sister. Florence’s mother joins them, safe from her husband at last, although there is no happy reunion between child and mother. Florence is too scarred by her to trust her again.
Florence floats through the book, often hungry, tired, dirty and neglected. I felt desperate for her, her innocence in such an ugly situation, and then the slow dawning for her of the reality of Millwood and her father’s role in it.
Minrose Gwin writes exquisitely, which makes the book a pleasure to read. I found myself going back to certain paragraphs to savour them again. Her use of detail makes scenes come alive, while her metaphors make the prose dance. It’s a harrowing subject matter – made all the more uncomfortable by our knowledge of apartheid days here – but the beauty of the writing makes it easier to deal with.
This is her first novel, although she has written a memoir about the relationship between her mother and her, which I’m definitely going to find and read.