Chapter 55: “Scarlet Sister Mary” by Julia Peterkin (1928)

“Everything has its way of speaking and telling things worth knowing. Even the little grass-blades have their way of saying things as plain as words when human lips let them fall…the choice bits of wisdom…were never written down in any books.”

7001I realize that it’s been a while.

I haven’t read anything at all in a long while, I’ve been so busy with working and moving and getting engaged and and and and and. However, in the past couple weeks, I have managed to knock out another three of these Pulitzers. So that’s encouraging.

Also, I just realized how far I’ve fallen behind in reviewing these books. The last entry I made here was Elbow Room, but since then I’ve also finished The Color Purple, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Way West, and Journey in the Dark. Furthermore, I have yet to write reviews of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Killer Angels, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Grapes of Wrath—all novels I had already read before Joshua and I started this project.

Lots of catching up to do.

I can gladly say that in the past couple weeks, I also finished Julia Peterkin’s 1928 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Scarlet Sister Mary.

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Let me put it to you this way: Scarlet Sister Mary is an odd duck of a book. It was The Scarlet Letter from a black perspective, Margaret Mead dressed up in Margaret Mitchell’s clothing, a predecessor to Geraldine Brooks’s masquerade ball, the basic foundation of Beloved or The Color Purple.

I don’t think that Peterkin fully knew what she was going for when she wrote it; if, on the other hand, she did fully know, she didn’t execute very well. It tries its very hardest to be profound and insightful, but ends up ultimately disappointing, falling well short of the mark. It really seems like Peterkin makes an honest attempt at not going too far in any direction, but ends up going absolutely nowhere.

She tries to make Mary (the titled character) promiscuous and carefree, but not a slut; a God-fearing Christian woman, but not a saint; not a great mother, but not a terrible mother. In the end, Sister Mary winds up being a character that is completely stuck in neutral while events and circumstances just sort of… happen to her.

There’s no better example of this than main plot of the book, when Mary is banned from the church: she’s banned for having premarital sex, nosedives into a life of promiscuity, has a bunch of kids, gets a jewel with a curse on it from a witch doctor to attract men, tries to gain reentry to the church and succeeds, but still refuses to part with her old life. No lessons learned, no progress made—just a very stunted horizontal plot line.

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To Peterkin’s credit, though, she was a pretty great writer. Once again, on this Pulitzer Journey, we are faced with a good writer doing her damnedest to write a good story but failing.

The dialectic aspect of Scarlet Sister Mary was fabulous—all of the characters in this book speak with a Gullah dialect (the Gullah are African-Americans who lived on the coastal plains of South Carolina and Georgia at the turn of the 20th century); almost a sort of backwoods, hillbilly/French-tinged Creole-speak. I can’t recall having ever encountered this people group in a novel before this one.

Furthermore, Peterkin really excels at setting and descriptors. The setting of this book was so vivid and detailed, so easy to picture in my imagination. In fact, it’s almost as though Peterkin wrote this whole novel just to show her readers this mystical, magical time and place. She spends far more time explaining what kind of food you’d find at a wedding reception, or who sits where in church and why, or how you spruce up a one-room cabin when you’re dirt poor (everything you can’t whitewash you wrap in newspaper), or what they have for breakfast (sweet potatoes baked slowly in the banked ashes of the fire overnight) than exploring the inner motivations of her characters. Mary herself we get to know, but Peterkin doesn’t showcase any of the other characters hardly at all.

This region, though, and this time—it really seems like she has a genuine affinity and affection for this place.

Which, to be perfectly honest, I find disconcerting.

Much like Geraldine Brooks, author of March (Pulitzer, 2006)—a white Australian woman who won America’s highest prize in literature for a book she wrote, a prequel to Louisa Alcott’s Little Women, about the plights of slaves during the Civil War from the perspective of a white man—, Peterkin is a white woman writing about Gullah people at the turn of the century. However, I have to admit that Peterkin has a bit more first-hand experience with her muse: she was raised by a Gullah nurse and married a man who owned a cotton plantation.

Despite her proximity, though, I have to protest the nature in which the Gullah in her book were portrayed. They seemed so happy to be living in squalor, to have nothing, to slave away (pardon the figure of speech) under the hot South Carolina sun in the cotton fields all day long. The general attitude of these characters seems to be “dirt poor and loving it.”

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I really wasn’t sure what sort of story Peterkin was trying to tell, I wasn’t sure what she was trying to say about the Gullah people, I wasn’t sure what she was trying to say about religion, and, to sum up my review, I really wasn’t too sure how I felt about this book.

Some books inspire me, and some books enrapture me; some books infuriate me, and some books disgust me; some books roll off me like water on a duck’s back—they’re forgettable and easy to shrug off.

Scarlet Sister Mary left me jilted and puzzled.

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