I suspect that most readers’ first reaction to this book is to marvel at the contrast between the beautifully written, descriptive prose and the dark violence of the story within. Author Minrose Gwin depicts a small town in 1963 Mississippi that is full of secrets, and ten year old Florence Forrest, who spends time on both the white and black sides of town, is exposed to most of those secrets, although she is oblivious to many of them. Gwin’s vivid description of the relentless heat of a Mississippi summer almost helps explain the inertia that affects even the decent people in town: those who know about the violence that goes on after dark but ignore it because they don’t want to get involved. I felt every trickle of sweat and scratchy layer of clothing. When I heard about this book, I was interested for several reasons: first was that I had heard about but not read The Help, and wondered if it had inspired a subgenre of civil rights era fiction; second was that I had recently heard noted Justice Department attorney, John Doar, speak about some of the lesser known heroes of the civil rights movement, and I wondered how the characters in Millwood, Mississippi would compare; and finally, most of what I know about this era comes from reading nonfiction or juvenile fiction such as The Empty Schoolhouse or Patricia Crosses Town, so I was curious about an adult novel billed as “a nuanced, gripping story of race and identity.” It did not disappoint.
Some of the secrets in Millwood are painfully obvious to an adult reader – that Florence’s father is a member of the Klan and that her mother drives around in the darkness warning local black communities on the nights of the raids; that her grandparents recognized Florence’s father was white trash from the beginning but feel they cannot interfere in a marriage, even to protect their daughter and granddaughter (and perhaps they do not realize how serious the danger is); and that something dreadful is going to happen, not just to Medgar Evers but to the innocent newcomer, Zenie’s niece, Eva Greene.
Eva tells a shopkeeper on the black side of town that change is coming: “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but a change going to come. Look at Harmony, over in Leake County. They brought in Medgar Evars and the NAACP and the Justice Department people, and they’re finally starting to get registered.” I am proud that my father, Gordon A. Martin, Jr., was one of those Justice Department lawyers, working for Robert Kennedy and John Doar, assisting courageous men and women in Hattiesburg, Mississippi prepare testimony in pursuit of their right to vote. My father tells their story in Count Them One By One: Black Mississippians Fighting for the Right to Vote (coming next fall from the University Press of Mississippi), the story of the United States v. Theron Lynd, an important civil rights trial in Mississippi which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - which my father calls the greatest civil rights legislation since the Reconstruction. Like fictional Eva, these real and very brave witnesses risked their lives for a cause they believed in more than personal safety.
One of my greatest fears, as I read Queen of Palmyra late at night, was that no one would step up to protect Florence from her increasingly violent father, although I was unsure whether he would kill her or rape her. One of my favorite parts of the book was when a character I had dismissed as weak and willfully blind mustered her wits to protect Florence. In the novel’s greatest irony, it is Zenie, her grandmother’s maid, who realizes Florence is being physically abused by her father, although Zenie is unable to protect her own niece from that same individual and Florence's own family has ignored her struggles.
Is this a novel of hope or of shame? Is Eva Greene, the catalyst of the violent events of the summer, or would they have occurred anyway? I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t read it so I will leave these questions for the moment, and instead recommend the book highly for those interested in a novel that is painful yet irresistible. I think it is a perfect book group selection as there are so many issues to discuss.
This review is part of the TLC Book Tour. Thank you to HarperCollins (publisher of the beloved Betsy-Tacy books) for providing me with a copy of this book (although I wish it had come with a slice of Florence's mother's lemon cake with divinity icing!). I look forward to more from this author.