Reviewed by Donna Meredith
Ruth Rodgers’s debut novel, Reparations, tells the poignant story of a friendship in the 1940s between two girls—one black, one white. Yes, it’s another story with race relations at its center, a story the South must tell and retell because each iteration takes us one step further toward understanding and healing the wounds of the past.
The story is set in the fictional town of Pine Lake, a rural community near Tallahassee, which is frequently referenced in the book.
Rodgers grew up in Madison County and received a B.A. and Master’s in English Education from Florida State University. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies.
The novel, published by the Florida Historical Society Press, is narrated in first person by Kate Riley, a librarian in her early 60s. She returns to her childhood home in northern Florida to care for her mother, who has dislocated her shoulder in a fall. On this extended visit, Kate encounters a childhood friend, Delia, whose parents once sharecropped on Kate’s family farm. Seeing Delia after all these years evokes painful memories of ugly events Kate witnessed as a teen but did nothing to prevent.
The novel shifts frequently between the present-day in Pine Lake and Kate’s memories of her childhood, which are formatted in italics.
Driven to atone for her past sins of omission, Kate works to bring justice to those who harmed Delia. But the horrible crime Kate witnessed can’t be exposed without harming innocent people. Instead, she tries to solve the mystery of a black family’s home that burned down forty years ago, killing a mother and her children. Kate is convinced those who harmed Delia also were responsible for this arson and murder.
In trying to uncover the truth, Kate and Delia find themselves confronting some of the most powerful citizens in Pine Lake.
An interesting subplot develops when Kate encounters her high school crush, Brian Simmons. Since he is now divorced, Kate’s imagination blossoms with fantasies about opportunities missed in youth. She flirts with the idea of fulfilling them now, despite being happily married to Russell. Anyone who ever wondered what would happen if they ran into an old beau at a high school reunion will understand Kate’s confused attraction, which leads her to commit serious errors in judgment. In Rodgers’s capable hands, Kate’s mistakes render her likeable and very human.
As Kate and Delia come closer to solving the mystery of the fire, they put themselves and others in danger. Their final confrontations will keep readers on edge and eager to learn the outcome of events.
Rodgers’s prose flows with the clarity and ease you’d expect from a writer who taught English for 25 years. A warning: the historically accurate use of the “n” word and similar slurs may offend, but sugarcoating the language would have destroyed the realism of the novel. Though Kate’s observations and angst occasionally feel a tad repetitious, the novel’s portrayals of Southern culture and the layers of power, intrigue and class in small town America ring true.
With memorable characters and strong plot, this literary novel is well worth reading. Since it is also a mystery, it should appeal to a wide audience.
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