“When Stars Rain Down,” by Angela Jackson-Brown

Angela Jackson-Brown

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

When Stars Rain Down (Thomas Nelson April 2021) is a delicate yet brave coming-of-age novel by Angela Jackson-Brown. Delicate in its tenderness and kindhearted embrace of its characters and their culture, the book is warm, loving, and evocative in its depictions of family life in the Deep South. It also bravely and boldly tackles race relations in small town Georgia in the 1930 from the first-person point-of-view of Opal Pruitt, a Black woman anticipating her soon-to-be eighteenth birthday.

Opal, who is intelligent and talented as a seamstress, is a high school dropout. She works with her grandmother Birdie as a domestic in a home where the White matriarch takes the unprecedented step of asking them to enter through the front door. Miss Peggy even trusts them with a key to the house.

Both Birdie and Miss Peggy are elderly and beginning to fail. Miss Peggy’s daughter is mentally unstable, and a large part of Opal’s job is taking care of her. The only male in the household is Jimmy Earl, who had been Opal’s childhood friend. Well-intentioned but clueless at times, Jimmy Earl returns from college for the summer and tries to befriend Opal again. This attempt only complicates her life in dangerous ways.

In contrast to the increasing frailty of Birdie and Miss Peggy, Opal is strong, energetic, and full of life and questions. Opal falls quietly in love with Cedric, a somewhat wild preacher’s son with a yearning to become a pitcher for a Black baseball league. Their courtship is a gentle portrayal of young love with just the right dusting of humor. Opal’s awakening sexual longings, which perplex and worry her, are dealt with in a sensitive yet truthful manner.

Despite the strong, loving connections in Opal’s family, tensions still flare. Opal was abandoned by her birth parents and raised by Birdie. Church-going Christians, Opal and Birdie are hard workers living at the edge of poverty. They are conservative in their approach to race relations and cautious about dealing with White folks. Opal’s uncles (Birdie’s sons) are more confrontational and less conservative. One uncle in particular pushes Opal to go back to school and make something more of her life. The uncles form a strong support system in her life.

Jimmy Earl’s menacing cousin and his racist cohorts play out a dangerous game, sweeping Opal and the Black community into a precarious and ultimately violent situation. Early in the book, the Klan, led by Jimmy Earl’s cousin, marches through the community and burns down their chicken coop, killing all the chickens in a gut-wrenching scene. Having lived a long time in the South, Birdie opts to do nothing out of fear of worse retributions. But then Opal is attacked and beaten. In a well-meaning attempt to help, Jimmy Earl and his would-be girlfriend soon make things worse.

Author Angela Jackson-Brown tackles the South’s tortured race-relations straight on and manages quite well to avoid painting all Whites as evil, racists or all Blacks as saints. Yet Birdie warns Opal that even the “good White folks” like Miss Peggy and Jimmy Earl can’t be fully trusted. In a revealing scene, Opal asks Birdie, whom she calls Granny, if Blacks and Whites can ever be friends. Birdie’s answer reveals the limitations between races:

“Me and Miss Peggy are as close to friends as any Colored and White person can be, but even that has its limit,” Granny said. “I love Miss Peggy, but I also know that she is my boss before she is my friend.”

Another potent exchange between Jimmy Earl and Opal emphasizes their different points of view. Jimmy Earl believes race relations are improving:

 “Yes, the South is still a racist place, but don’t you think things are getting better? Don’t you think we are heading toward better days between the races?”

Opal’s internal dialogue in this exchange might well contain one of the best lines in the book:

I looked at him with the shock of all my ancestors on my face. . . .  I couldn’t believe the words coming out of his mouth. He was smart as a whip when it came to book sense, but, clearly, Jimmy Earl didn’t have a lick of common sense when it came to issues related to race relationships right here in Parsons, Georgia.

In addition to the author’s astute display of the different realities of her characters, Jackson-Brown excels in conveying the everyday dangers of being Black in the time and place of the novel. The threat and fear create a rising tension. While the brutal arrogance of the Klan is horrifying, nearly equally so is the privileged carelessness of Miss Peggy, who for selfish reasons, keeps Opal at work long after her day’s labor should have been finished. Miss Peggy’s thoughtless demands set off a chain of events that expose an exhausted Opal to risk.

With a poet’s exacting eye, Jackson-Brown puts the readers directly into the scenes with deftly drawn descriptive passages. She excels at creating a strong sense of place with lyrical descriptions of the peach orchard, church singings, a baseball game, and walking at night under the starlight. She makes her readers understand and care for Opal, Birdie, and their family. That the author ultimately might break readers’ hearts seems inevitable, just as the violence is surely inevitable.

There is also a strong faith element in the story, as one might expect from Thomas-Nelson, which is one of the two major publishing houses that form HarperCollins Christian Publishing.  Birdie’s faith is bedrock solid and never wavers. In contrast, Opal questions and becomes angry at God in a time of despair. A delightful side-character, Mr. Tote, openly challenges the whole concept of a loving God. These faith elements are part and parcel of the characters and the story, never landing like preaching or proselytizing but are sure to be thought-provoking.

The story reads authentic to time and place and language. Jackson-Brown says in an Amazon interview that the South is “home” to her, though she has not lived there for twenty years. Yet the influence of her time there and the influence of her father’s stories about the 1930s obviously still call to her in that she re-creates it all so vividly.

Jackson-Brown is an award-winning writer, poet and playwright who currently teaches Creative Writing and English at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. Her work has appeared in various literary journals and her debut novel, Drinking from a Bitter Cup, was published by WiDo Publishing in 2014.  She is a graduate of Troy University, Auburn University, and the Spalding low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing.

All in all, When Stars Rain Down is worthy of any reader’s attention—especially fans of Southern literature. The writing is eloquent, the story is filled with conflict and tension balanced by warmth and charity, the characters are vivid and well-developed, and the impact is profound. This is the kind of book that will resonate long after the last pages are read.

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