I just finished reading "Scarlet Sister Mary" by Julia Peterkin. The following is my Shelfari review:
Rating : 5 stars
Julia Peterkin's famous novel, "Scarlet Sister Mary" was a ground-breaking work for its time (late 1920's). It is both fictional as well as a fascinating sociological account of the post-slavery Gullah people (Sierra Leone descendants) living in the South Carolina lowlands. The setting is an abandoned cotton plantation and the cast of characters are entirely African Americans; white people are mentioned only twice in the novel (interestingly, in association with the dreaded boll weevil infestation). The author, through inheritance, lived on such a plantation and associated frequently with its workers. Peterkin once noted, "I have lived among the Negroes. I like them. They are my friends and I have learned so much from them . . . I shall never write of white people. Their lives are not so colorful." (p.xxviii). The novel is indeed rich in local folk lore, vernacular, mysticism and religious rites and mores. Regarding religion, the novel's primary theme are the "scarlet" temptations of faith, which aptly lends to a comparison with Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous, "The Scarlet Letter." The protagonist Mary's name readily brings to mind the unmarried virgin Mary, as well as the "other" Biblical Mary: Mary Magdalene. Mary struggles to secure a place in the church community and in heaven, while living in accord with her own sensual desires. She mixes Christian practice with magical rites. She finds solace in hard labor, raising children, and the redolent piney woods surrounding the planter community. The novel portrays the age-old tension between faith and practice, between "old ways" and the new. Mary's "feet stepped lightly through the years . . . both of them resented many of the ways and customs of the plantation people who never stopped to think about things, and accepted ideas and beliefs which were handed down to them, the same as they accepted the old houses where they were born and worked in the same old fields which their parents and grandparents had salted with sweat" (p.220). However Peterkin tells her story in a respectful life-loving manner, one that rightly earned her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1929. I highly recommend this work.
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