February Read of the Month: “The Kudzu Queen” by Mimi Herman

Mimi Herman’s The Kudzu Queen (Regal House, 2023) is the kind of feel-good story we read to escape from stress and trouble. And don’t you just love a novel that not only entertains but also teaches something new? Most of us know kudzu as a noxious weed, but the plant has a surprising history in the United States and an even more surprising range of uses. This beautifully written coming-of-age novel will remedy any shortcomings in readers’ knowledge because Herman’s thorough research is woven effectively and unobtrusively into the story.

The Kudzu Queen introduces readers to a witty, gritty fifteen-year-old as narrator, Mathilda Lee Watson—known as Mattie. Her one talent, she laments, is making bird calls. Of course, she is underestimating herself.

In fact, Mattie may be the most impressive youthful protagonist since another Mattie—Mattie Ross—showed her mettle in True Grit. Watching Mattie Watson discover new strengths and talents is pure joy. It’s also refreshing to meet her loving, supportive parents, two smart brothers, and the sincere young man courting her.

The novel begins in 1941 when a stranger arrives in Cooper County, North Carolina. From the moment Mattie sets eyes on Mr. James T. Cullowee, she is entranced:

The doors on the truck read: Mr. James T. Cullowee, The Kudzu King,” but you only had to look at him to know he was royalty. Imagine that, a man in a suit and tie when it wasn’t a Sunday, wedding, or funeral. And such a man, with golden hair like the Greek gods we’d studied in junior high. His suit was the forget-me-not blue of his eyes, his white shirt so bright you had to squint to look at him. As for his tie, you couldn’t tell if he’d chosen that green to match his truck or had the truck painted to go with his tie.

He vaulted over the side rail and stood astride a mountain of leafy cuttings. “Ladies and gentlemen of Cooper County, my name is James. T. Cullowee, and I’ve come to bring you the crop of the future. More versatile than cotton, more profitable than tobacco, more nutritious than corn—this crop will feed your family and livestock and fill your bank account with cold hard cash.”

The reader, along with the more skeptical adults in Cooper County, will wonder if the promises Mr. Cullowee makes hold merit—or if he is just another snake oil salesman. Is he hero or villain? At first, his compliments to residents seem polite, but as they pile up, the hyperbole begins to sound insincere. Yet most county residents remain fascinated by Cullowee and his kudzu, particularly financially struggling farmers. Mayor Sampson welcomes the economic opportunities Cullowee dangles before the town and enthusiastically agrees to hold a Kudzu Festival.

Mr. Cullowee’s debonair looks and charisma attract the town’s teenage girls initially. Then his announcement that one lovely girl will reign over the Kudzu Festival secures their hearts—and sets off a competition that will bring out the best and worst qualities in the contestants yearning to become the first Kudzu Queen. The mayor’s wife, Mrs. Sampson, coaches the girls in the etiquette contestants should master. Mattie shares with her best friend Lynette what she has been learning in these lessons designed to teach “how a lady behaves in polite company”:

. . . appropriate skirt lengths for every occasion, proper posture while sitting and walking, and the correct way to drink tea—demonstrated by Mrs. Sampson using an invisible cup and saucer—with the pinky as far as possible from the other fingers, as if the rest of the hand suffered from a contagious disease.

The teen’s acidly on-target observations add humor to the story.

There are so many reasons to like this exceptionally fine novel. It highlights long-festering cultural problems like poverty, alcoholism, abuse, and the town/country divide that still shapes America today. From an environmental standpoint, the government’s kudzu promotion illustrates how good intentions can go awry. The story also beautifully renders the mother/daughter/community bonding occurring during the beauty pageant and festival. Cooper County becomes a character in itself with all the good and bad traits of human nature on full display. But perhaps The Kudzu Queen’s greatest achievement is capturing that glorious moment when a young woman comes into her own. Mattie, as well as her friend Lynette, shines in the novel’s memorable climatic scene.

Mimi Herman

Mimi Herman is the author of two collections of poetry, Logophilia and A Field Guide to Human Emotions; as well as a nonfiction book, The Art of Learning.  Her writing has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Crab Orchard Review, The Hollins Critic, Main Street Rag, Prime Number Magazine and other journals. She codirects Writeaways writing workshops in the United States and abroad, and is a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist. Mimi lives in a 1925 bungalow in Durham, North Carolina.  She holds a BA from UNC-CH and an MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College. The Kudzu Queen is her first novel, and Southern Literary Review looks forward to reading more of her work.

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