Paradise by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s Paradise is set in 1976 in, Ruby, Oklahoma, “a backward noplace ruled by men whose power to control was out of control and who had the nerve to say who could live and who not and where.”

Refused admission to other all-black communities because of their darker skins and threatened by white supremacists after WWII, a couple dozen families established Ruby 17 miles from the nearest building in which Catholic nuns ran a school for Indian children. Ruby’s settlers called it “the Convent.”

As Paradise opens, the school is closed and the sisters of working age reassigned elsewhere, but the Convent’s central-nowhere location on an East-West highway continues to make it a stopping place for young women running from something. The way they dress, their language, their music, their attitudes shock most of Ruby’s residents.

Before long rumors start to circulate that those strange women are doing evil things at the Convent.

Stephen King would have that into a terrifying tale with an unambiguous message. Instead of a story that readers can understand on one reading, Morrison tangled it into literary fiction suited to discussion by post-menopausal women in monthly book clubs.

Black dust jacket calls attention to author, not the story

Paradise by Toni Morrison
Alfred A. Knopf. ©1998. 318 p.
1998 bestseller #9; my grade: B

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Scarlet Sister Mary: Memorable Black Single Mom

In Scarlet Sister Mary, Julia Peterkin writes a deceptively shallow story of the post-Civil War South that focuses on a black woman.

Mary is a pretty, spirited teenager raised by Maum Hannah, a pillar of the Quarters church that calls the teen  “Sister Mary.”

Pregnant, Mary weds July, who promptly deserts her. The church that would have rallied around a deserted wife has little sympathy for a girl who had premarital sex, a scarlet sin.

Mary  keeps the roof patched and food on the table by field work. July’s twin brother, June, long in love with Mary, is close at hand.

Before Mary is much more than 30, she has five children by different fathers and two of her grandchildren to raise as well.

When July comes back, she kicks him out.

Mary is a proud woman. She’s also getting old. What’s she to do with a passel of kids to raise?

Peterkin deftly shows how one woman copes as a single parent. Mary’s choices may not be good ones, but Peterkin makes them appear plausible. Similarly, she makes believable Mary’s easy acceptance of both organized Christianity and black magic.

You may not side with Mary, but when you’ve finished Scarlet Sister Mary, you’ll feel you understand her.

Scarlet Sister Mary
by Julia Peterkin
Bobbs-Merrill. 1928
345 pages
1929 # 9
My grade B+
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni