Julia Peterkin – Scarlet Sister Mary

7570339316_e9c9753e29_oFor a majority of this read I was trying to piece together what the central conflict for this work was. There were a lot of pleasant sub-plots, but as for a central redeeming conflict for our conflicted main character to overcome, I was in the dark. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the work thoroughly, but that as a reader I was a little uncharted at times. I like to guess a little throughout the work of what is going to happen and what the conflict is, but in this one I couldn’t really tell. One of the major reasons it was hard to look ahead was because our protagonist isn’t always the most likable characters. Sister Mary is hard to get a handle on, which begs a very interesting question of this novel. Mary is rebelling ferociously against her very specific culture. Freed slaves in the south around the turn of the century that still live in the Plantation they were enslaved on in south Carolina. Mary is a very different main character and I loved her. According to her culture, she was a wicked woman, but according to our time and place she wouldn’t have been to out of the ordinary, which made the reading of this character difficult. Then I think also that this book was written in the 1920’s which would have made a black female protagonist that is a wicked woman a very controversial main character. To go a step further, for Mary then to be a character that Peterkin defends and justifies in her wayward ways would have been an incredible statement to the general population making a lot of claims about Christianity and proper marital relations.

Then comes a big part of the novel that I really admired. Along with the conflicted main character and the very avaunt-garde social dynamics that the main character displays was really eye-opening for me in this read. Peterkin was extremely ahead of her time in the writing of this novel. To think that Age of Innocence won not too long before this and that novel plays on a social tension that uses a lot of the same old Victorian dynamics that England had been using for the last 100 years. So for Peterkin to employ the same protagonist to go against the grain of her culture and the culture of the time in the way that Mary does is an extremely brave move. Then to put that all together, I got the very vague sense toward the very end of the novel that Peterkin was sketching out a very vague picture of the Odyssey in her novel. One of the only clues, other than some not to beat up on an overused word, but, vague overtones of the Odyssey’s classic themes. On page 200 of my copy, Peterkin gives reference to Dawn rises and Peterkin personifying the sunrise as is famous from Homer, also having a cripple as a main character, Mary’s journey into the ‘underworld’ of dramatic divinely inspired visions. All of this to combined in me the slight sense that some Odyssey allusions would be too far off.

To wrap up succinctly I really enjoyed this read. I can’t help but think that Alice Walker’s later Pulitzer-winning novel The Color Purple borrowed heavily from this work, in theme and some characters and situations, but I could see Walker giving a great nod to this novel than stealing from it. I would like to do some research on Peterkin and see how influential this novel was to African-American literature as a whole. I have taken college level English classes based on this time period and never read or even heard of Peterkin before this challenge which is remarkable to me for a writer or her caliber.


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