Sunday, March 14, 2010

Book review - Scarlet Sister Mary

In February, my book club read Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin. Written in 1928, it won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1929. None of my club members, as I recall, had ever heard of the book, or the author. It was brought to our attention when we were discussing, a few months ago, which women had won the Pulitzer Prize. The first Pulitzer Prize for a novel was awarded in 1918. Willa Cather was the first of three women in a row, to win the Pulitzer in 1923, for her novel One of Ours.

To see the list of winners online, go to

Scarlet Sister Mary tells the story of a community of African Americans, Gullah people, who lived in coastal South Carolina. Mary married her lover, but he leaves her shortly after their son is born. Although she doesn't divorce and remarry, she has eight more children, making her a "scarlet sister" in the eyes of the church. We are not told when the story takes place, only When the war between the states freed them [the slaves] and broke up the old plantation system, the black people lived on in the old plantation Quarters, shifting for themselves and eking out a living as best they could... A great empty Big House, once the proud home of the plantation masters, is now an old crumbling shell with broken chimneys and a rotting roof. Ghosts can be heard at sunset rattling the closed window-blinds up-stairs, as they strive for a glimpse of the shining river that shows between the tall cedars and magnolias.

The language and culture of the Gullah people is what I found the most interesting about the book. Peterkin's choice of words and phases are very beautiful. Everything had a reason, whether it's the use of love charms or the songs of the birds. There was not a bite to eat in the house. Mary put down her sewing, and, taking some eggs from the basket on the safe, began mixing a sweetened bread. She put it into the three-legged oven on the hearth to bake, then she took the empty eggshells and strung them and hung them up beside the chimney in the place of the old one which she threw into the fire. "You time is out," she told the old shells. "But you done you work good. De hens is a-layin fine. I'm much obliged to you."

The language used by the characters does not distract for the story, but adds to it, making you feel in the midst of the people. One question we couldn't answer was if life was actually the way Peterkin, a white woman, portrays it. I read after our discussion that she was raised by a Gullah-speaking nurse in South Carolina, and was a native speaker of the language. In the story, Peterkin emphasizes how much Mary loved to work in the fields and sweat, but is that an outsider looking in? Our book club is looking for answers to this question, and if anyone has any insights, let me know, and I'll pass it on to the others. Although the story may be a little sad at times, it is very uplifting and funny in places. A definite candidate for your book list!


Athena said...

Gullah Gullah Island! This was a show my daughters watched on Nick Jr.- reading your review reminded me of that, and I think my husband grew up near the area (he grew up on an island in SC).

"In the story, Peterkin emphasizes how much Mary loved to work in the fields and sweat, but is that an outsider looking in?"- I'd wonder that, too.

Sounds like a great book.

Nancy said...

Wow...I've never heard of it either. Sounds good though...I'm always looking for new books to check out, thanks!

Splendid Little Stars said...

How interesting! I'm sharing this with my book club!

tbranscum said...

I have never heard of it either. Def. going to check it out! Thanks

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