The Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin
Review by Rhett DeVane
Minrose Gwin’s novel The Queen of Palmyra beautifully captures the delicate tipping point between Florence Forrest’s tormented childhood and young adulthood. At a time when eleven-year-old Flo should be giggling with friends, she is forced instead into the dark underbelly of racial unrest of the early ’60s in the Deep South. Mostly ignored by a troubled, alcoholic mother and belligerent father, and alienated from the town’s children, Flo longs for love and acceptance like most girls her age lust for the more frivolous trappings of childhood.
Flo is befriended by her grandparent’s hired help Zenie Johnson and spends a great deal of time in “Shake Rag,” the black section of their Mississippi town. After Zenie’s college-age niece is brutally molested, bits and pieces of the truth filter through Flo’s awareness, and she starts to comprehend the depth of the divide between black and white. Her father’s dark secrets and the reality of her parents’ brutal marriage become clear. Flo’s beloved grandfather’s death seems to tip the balance—the only loving constant of her life, a ghost she can no longer reach.
Throughout the novel, the reader glimpses the woman Flo shall become, molded by the events of her childhood and preteens. The hardscrabble lessons she learns pave the way for her development into a person of deep understanding and compassion: a different reality from the adults in her tragic young life. Indeed, hope rests in the children and the past shades the future.
While many stories have relived the horrible times in the fight for equality in the South—the Klan, the molestations, the murders—The Queen of Palmyra illuminates the historic period through the eyes and voice of an innocent. Told with delicious prose and poignant humor even in the face of unspeakable horrors, the novel grips and holds the reader in its spell from the first page until the final sigh.
Minrose Gwin is the author of the memoir Wishing for Snow, a lyrical memoir about her relationship with her mentally ill mother. She has also written numerous scholarly books and coedited The Literature of the American South. Like her young protagonist in The Queen of Palmyra, Gwin grew up in a small Mississippi town.