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Jewel (Oprah's Book Club) Paperback – January 19, 1999

3.7 out of 5 stars 397 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Oprah Book Club® Selection, January 1999: The year is 1943 and life is good for Jewel Hilburn, her husband, Leston, and their five children. Although there's a war on, the Mississippi economy is booming, providing plenty of business for the hardworking family. And even the news that eldest son James has enlisted is mitigated by the fact that Jewel, now pushing 40, is pregnant with one last child. Her joy is slightly clouded, however, when her childhood friend Cathedral arrives at the door with a troubling prophecy: "I say unto you that the baby you be carrying be yo' hardship, be yo' test in this world. This be my prophesying unto you, Miss Jewel."

When the child is finally born, it seems that Cathedral's prediction was empty: the baby appears normal in every way. As the months go by, however, Jewel becomes increasingly afraid that something is wrong with little Brenda Kay--she doesn't cry, she doesn't roll over, she's hardly ever awake. Eventually husband and wife take the baby to the doctor and are informed that she is a "Mongolian Idiot," not expected to live past the age of 2. Jewel angrily rebuffs the doctor's suggestion that they institutionalize Brenda Kay. Instead the Hilburns shoulder the burdens--and discover the unexpected joys--of living with a Down's syndrome child.

Bret Lott has written a novel that spans decades, follows the lives of several characters, and cuts back and forth between Mississippi and California. Given these challenges, a lesser writer might lose focus. Lott, however, has wisely chosen to keep his eye trained on Jewel--a narrator who is smart, perceptive, and above all, honest. He has also bucked the trend toward political correctness by allowing his characters to think, feel, and talk the way white Mississippians of that era would have. ("Mongolian Idiot," "nigger," "cracker," and "buck" are just a few of the epithets sprinkled throughout the text.) The language may be discomforting to some readers. Few will deny, however, that Bret Lott has crafted a clan that is all heart in this bittersweet paean to the enduring strength of familial love. --Margaret Prior

From Publishers Weekly

Jewel Hilburn, the strong-willed narrator of this acutely affecting work, lavishes the parental love she never received upon her own exceptional child. Her adult life in rural Mississippi with two daughters, three sons and a devoted husband, Leston, has been one of domestic stability until the arrival in 1943 of her sixth child, Brenda Kay, afflicted with Down's syndrome. Brenda Kay becomes Jewel's, and necessarily her family's, sole focus: Leston's dream of owning a lumber company dies as medical costs mount, a lifelong friend is spitefully and unjustly blamed for an accident involving Brenda Kay, Jewel's decision to move the family to California to ensure the child's education sparks an excruciating battle of wills with Leston. Lott ( A Dream of Old Leaves ), who based his main characters on his own grandmother and aunt, expertly realizes a stubborn, faithful mother and her phenomenally unselfish, supportive family. Readers will suffer with Jewel, share her enthusiasm at Brenda Kay's progress, turn against her as she deliberately tries to break Leston's spirit. This haunting novel, imbued with an almost unbearable authenticity, runs the gamut of emotions associated with marriage and parenthood and acknowledges love's limitless potential.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Series: Oprah's Book Club
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press (January 19, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0671038184
  • ISBN-13: 978-0671038182
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (397 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #776,636 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Debbie Lee Wesselmann TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 3, 2005
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Brett Lott's Jewel, despite its fine critical reception, languished in obscurity until Oprah selected it as one of the titles in her book club. The sudden attention had a twofold impact: thousands of readers who had never heard of Lott eagerly snapped up copies, and serious readers who were originally more inclined to pick up Lott's work instead shunned it as an "Oprah book." Since a good book is a good book - and Jewel IS good - I recommend that readers give it a closer look before deciding.

The novel begins in 1940's Mississippi as Jewel discovers that she is pregnant with "one last child." Her husband Leston reacts to the news with a gentle smile and affection, although her five children don't know quite what to make of it. Her oldest child James is almost old enough to enlist in the military, and her youngest, Annie, still depends on the comfort of a tattered blanket. Jewel worries about her children and their impending displacement by the needs of a new baby, but she cannot foresee how much the weight will be. Cathedral, a black woman who lives "out back" with her family and who has become a sort of friend (as much as a white woman and a black woman could in 1940's Mississippi), has an inkling. She prophesies that the coming baby will be Jewel's "hardship in life." When Jewel and Leston face the heartbreak that their beautiful Brenda Kay is not normal, Jewel tailors her entire life towards ensuring that her Down's Syndrome child is given nothing but the best. Through financial and domestic hardship, Jewel maintains devotion to her "baby girl" as the world around them changes over the decades.

Lott has created a compelling narrative voice in Jewel, a character whose honest, steadfast beliefs take her and her family through difficult times.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
As a father of a child with Down Syndrome, I can share my first-hand experience of what it is like to get the diagnosis within an hour of my son's birth. I can't imagine, however, receiving the diagnosis as it was given in 1943, that this girl is a "Mongoloid idiot, won't survive past two and should be institutionalized."
We know today that children born with Down Syndrome are educable, have many very special gifts and talents, and can make a way for themselves in this world. And advances in medical technology and treatment have lengthened the life span for people with Down Syndrome to the 50s and 60s.
This book elegantly depicts the relationship between Jewel and her daughter. I identified with her in so many ways, including the intense love I have for my 5-year-old with Down Syndrome and the pride I feel in his every accomplishment. This is an incredible view into the challenges a family can face when presented with a child with a disability, not just Down Syndrome. And Lott's accurate depiction of 'the way it was' demonstrates how far we have come, and how far we still need to go, to accept people with mental retardation in our society.
Some reviewers have given this book low marks because it was depressing. Certainly, parts were. But there are hundreds of thousands of Americans who have an immediate family member with Down Syndrome, and who I'm sure can relate to many of the emotions Jewel displays and the love she has for her daughter.
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What a struggle this book was! Aside from the fact that Bret Lott is obviously a very talented writer, I had such a hard time moving through this story. I'm not sure what it was about Jewel that failed to excite me. Excellent writing skills and a decent storyline are both present; however, I could not enjoy myself. Something was definitely missing for me.
Jewel Hilburn is a good wife, bringing forth five strong, healthy children and making a comfortable home for her family. Although late in life, Jewel finds herself pregnant again -- a sixth child, the baby of the family, the apple of her eye. But five months after little Brenda Kay is born, Jewel notices something dreadfully different from her other children. God has blessed the Hilburn family with a special child, a Down's Syndrome baby, and one who will prove she is both the burden and joy of all their lives. The story spans an entire lifetime, beginning with flashbacks of Jewel's childhood and ending with Jewel in her 80s. For readers who enjoy epics and characters that grow up before you, Jewel, at least in that respect, will provide.
I am clearly stumped as to the drawback of this book (for me). Pages did not turn quickly, I was never excited to pick it up and return to the world of Jewel and her family. I will say the last few chapters of this book did evoke some emotion, but other than that, Jewel fell flat. There is an audience for this book; however, be aware that the story does not move quickly, paragraphs are overly descriptive, and there is not enough dialogue to push things along. If you are in a reading slump, bypass Jewel for something more exciting.
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By A Customer on April 16, 2004
Format: Paperback
I stuck with this book until the end,and I'm glad I did. Jewel offers readers the chance to look into the lives of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation-- caring for a Down's Syndrome child. The plot and the story were intriguing.
However, as a main character, I found Jewel extremely annoying. It seemed like she had children to satisfy her own ego, not to give out unconditional love. I thought she was very selfish. It was terrible the way she abandoned her other five kids. Bret Lott makes it seem like she had no other choice, that taking care of Brenda Kay was so hard that giving up the five others was inevitable. I couldn't get the warm fuzzies about Brenda Kay and jewel's mother/child relationship because I don't think Jewel WAS a good mother. Controlling and demanding, yes. Caring, no.
Also, this book was so heavy, weighed down with long descriptive phrases, renderings that made no sense, Jewel repeating herself again and again. There was not enough dialogue, and the action (or lack thereof) was insipid and SLOW. The first thing we learned in fiction writing in college is "SHOW, DON'T TELL." I ate up the few action scenes, as well as the family's backgrounds, like a greedy crack addict, dying for something out of Jewel's head.
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