Half of Paradise, by James Lee Burke ****

halfofparadiseJames Lee Burke has been writing for roughly fifty years now, and this was an early effort, published in 1965; I think it was his first, in fact. It starts out appearing to be short stories, but the narratives involving three individuals eventually make one crushing point about the dismal, cynical failure of the US criminal justice system, which rains down its uneven blows hardest upon the poorest sectors of the population. He never actually says it. He goes one better, by demonstrating it through his fiction.

Those who have read his Edgar winners (Neon Rain and Black Cherry Blues) have come to expect brilliant rendering of setting and complex, absolutely believable character development.

As for me, if Half of Paradise, not an award-winning story but strong nevertheless, a stark, brutal, depressing book reminiscent of some of Russell Banks’s work (but with a Southern exposure) were as good as Burke were ever going to become, I would still choose to read his work over that of most other writers. And because it is indeed grim–and anything with this subject matter ought to be–I always have another book going, too. Actually, I usually have four to six books that I read in rotation. By not making more than one or two of them morbid, I keep myself from plunging to the depths one otherwise might while reading it.

A worthy early effort, still worth reading today if you can stand the sting of the “n” word.

I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots, by Susan Straight *****

IBeeninsorrow'skitchenWho knew that there is a completely separate people living on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina? They are descendants of escaped slaves, and the language they speak, known as “Gullah” or “Geechee”, is a dialect similar to Creole English, but it also uses sentence structure that is borrowed from African languages and what Wikipedia calls African “loan words”. I was introduced to this culture by this wonderful novel, written by the talented Susan Straight. It was written some time ago, but remains a personal favorite; your best bet is to order it used.

The story’s protagonist is Marietta, who grows up in this isolated environment in the 1950’s, She’s written several good novels, but this one may be the most memorable so far. Her protagonist lives in an almost unreachable island off the Carolina coasts. Deep back in a nearly impenetrable area that is technologically about 100 years behind, a flushing toilet and an electrical outlet are unseen. Yet tourists somehow get there (god, aren’t they everywhere?) and so she and her family eke out a living by cutting the reeds that grow in the swamps and weaving them into intricate baskets.

She learns early that if a girl (teenage life is unknown in this culture) is six feet tall and very dark, the pale tourists will be frightened and they’ll leave. This gave me pause. I’m not generally into the whole ‘white guilt’ thing; I prefer action to introspection. But I did wonder: if a very dark woman who was seated near me suddenly stood up and she was six feet tall (to my just over five feet), would I take a step back? I don’t think I would now, but there was a time when I would have. The startled reaction comes from isolation and unfamiliarity. I grew up in a very Caucasian neighborhood; there were hundreds of students in my graduating class, and except for the foreign exchange students, there was only one African-American student. The first thing I did, upon gaining independence, was to move straight to the inner city. Isolation wasn’t for me.

But let’s get back to Marietta. When her mother dies, she is forced to move to the mainland, and experiences culture shock. She has to learn to speak standard English; everything is extremely different. Seeing the world through Marietta’s eyes made me view things very differently. What comes of it is a really off-beat civil rights lesson.

How many white authors have the nerve to write as if they can see into the very soul of an African-American protagonist? I only know of one, and I think she carries it off really well. It’s a gutsy thing to do. There’s good reason for it: Straight grew up as virtually the only Caucasian in a Black neighborhood in Riverside, California. Culturally, she considers herself Black.

If this sounds interesting to you, give it a try. See what you think, and let me know. I hope to add a discussion page to this site, which is nearing its one-week anniversary. What could be a better topic for conversation than a really good book?