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The Queen of Palmyra: A Novel (P.S.) Paperback – April 27, 2010

4.4 out of 5 stars 32 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The protagonist of this affecting and disturbing bildungsroman, Florence Forrest, lives in Millwood, Miss., the small segregated town where her father, Win, a burial insurance salesman, is the proud leader of the local Klansmen. It's 1963, and Florence can't figure out why her mother, Martha, fears Win and focuses her attention on making runs to bootleggers. Florence spends days at her grandparents' house where she irritates the surly black housekeeper, Zenie (named for Zenobia, the queen of ancient Palmyra), and the afternoons with Zenie's family in Shake Rag, the neighborhood on the black side of town. Zenie has no particular affection for Florence or her kin, but tolerates the lot of them out of necessity. The civil rights movement is sweeping through the South, and when Zenie's pretty, ambitious niece, Eva, comes to town to sell insurance to earn money for college, Millwood will never be the same. This thought-provoking novel shows the terror and tragedy in one divided Southern community whose residents have no interest in reconciling. The blacks want their equal rights while Win and his followers would rather kill than relinquish power. (May)
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From Booklist

Like Kathryn Stockett’s superhot The Help (2009), The Queen of Palmyra is set in 1960s Mississippi and deals with a segregated society in which black women are paid poorly to raise white people’s children. And like the popular Secret Life of Bees (2002), by Sue Monk Kidd, it is narrated by a confused young girl who can barely process the traumatic events she sees but does not understand. Florence’s abusive father sells burial insurance to black folks who can hardly afford it, and her beleaguered mother drinks as she bakes and sells cakes to shore up the family’s precarious finances. Amid the oppressive heat of summer in 1963 in the small town of Millwood, the neglected Florence is constantly shuttled between her grandparents and their longtime black maid, Zenie, with whom she meets Zenie’s niece, college student Eva Greene. When Eva begins selling burial insurance to pay for her education, simmering racial tensions erupt, and Florence becomes a witness to unspeakable crimes. First-novelist Gwin employs an offbeat, stream-of-consciousness style in this atmospheric depiction of racial hatred in the Deep South. --Joanne Wilkinson
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Product Details

  • Series: P.S.
  • Paperback: 390 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; 1 edition (April 27, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061840327
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061840326
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,139,502 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J. S. Kasson on May 10, 2010
Format: Paperback
This extraordinary novel takes the reader inside the dark world of the deep South during the Civil Rights era, when unspeakable acts occurred alongside everyday moments of joy, humor, and pain. "I need you to understand how ordinary it all was," the book begins, as a young girl recalls after-dinner phone calls, a father who asks her to bring a box up from the cellar, and a mother who takes her on drunken night car rides as soon as he has gone. Young Florence will survive her childhood only if she manages not to see or understand her father's hooded costume, his violence against her and others, and the real suffering behind the wary dignity of the African-American family who cares for her when her own flies to pieces. This book carries the reader deep into a shared past--shared by Southerners White and Black, but also by those who only watched on television as Civil Rights workers were shot and tortured. Yet in that world, a mother who smells like sugar bakes beautiful cakes to support her family, a grandmother wears outlandish hats (and passes them on to an African-American domestic helper who is by no means pleased to have them), and a grandfather uses the tales of Uncle Wiggly to liberate a child's imagination. The reader cares deeply about young Florence, willing her survival and that of the beautiful young Black woman who opens new vistas for her as well as for the community she hopes to empower. Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra, was a warrior whose capture by the Roman Emperor never dimmed her luster as a model of struggle and resistance; in this novel, her memory leads the characters and readers toward transcendence. Minrose Gwin takes the reader on a deeply affecting journey. This is a novel you will not soon forget.
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Format: Paperback
Young Florence Forrest's family is falling apart. Her father has failed at yet another job, and her mother, Martha, insists they return to the family's hometown where Martha's cake business will support them. Florence's grandmother seems sympathetic to the young girl's plight--her raggedy, outgrown summer shirts and shorts and inability to place the states properly on a map. But despite her love for the child, the grandmother is limited by her relationship with her shiftless son-in-law.

So 11-year-old Florence's care is mostly given over to the grandparents' long-time maid. Over six feet tall with bad veins and legs that pain her, Zenie, named for Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, agrees to take on Florence for the summer. She'll "try it out. See how much trouble she get into." Mostly she ignores the girl. Then Eva, college-educated and filled with ideas, moves in with her Aunt Zenie and turns the Black community-- and young Florence's life-- upside down.

With her daughter sitting obediently on the front car seat, Martha crosses the color line, making late-night trips to the local Black bootlegger for reasons that become clear as the story progresses. Her father's smooth wooden box, hidden in the basement and retrieved for his special evening meetings, frightens Florence, who now moves freely from Zenie's house to her own. From this new vantage-- the "colored" side of town--Florence is exposed to what race really means in small town Mississippi in 1963. Thus the stage is set for a summer, and a story, no one will forget.

Told with the hindsight a belated child witness lends to the turbulent events, this eloquent novel could only be written by a Southerner.
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Format: Paperback
"Stories make us whole or tear us into a million pieces." The summer of 1963 in Millwood, Mississippi, forms a narrative thread that winds through Florence Irene Forrest's life, a chiaroscuro of memories that linger, finally resurfacing in a moment of stunning clarity. Florence's life isn't much like other girls' her age, the family moving frequently, finally back to roost in a little house in Millwood where her mother bakes fabulous cakes for local ladies and her father sells burial insurance. From the beginning of this novel, the images are stark, memorable, the kitchen bustling with activity, the clanking of pots and pans, the steady stream of customers on Saturday mornings, the heavy shoe Winburn Forrest wears to even his gait, Win's mysterious forays into the sweltering Mississippi night, his special wooden box gripped under his arm, the hominess of Florence's grandmother's house, where maid Zenia is a larger-than-life presence.

This long, drawn out summer is filled with portents as Florence worries over a return to fifth grade, a burgeoning Civil Rights movement, her mother's detour into depression and hospitalization, her father's blatant scrutiny and unwanted affection, his language uncensored as he murmurs racial epithets that fuel a growing rage at a changing future. It is with Zenie that Florence finds comfort and the cohesiveness of family. But much as Florence yearns for the security she feels with Zenie's tribe, especially since the arrival of a college student niece, Eva Greene, this white child has no place in the bosom of a black family, not when her father's name casts a pall on those who fear his reputation.
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