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Friday, May 14, 2010

The Patron Saint of Red Chevys (book review)

This book is a nice counterpoint to another I just revisited, Anthony Groom's elegant Bombingham (reviewed here). That told of a young African-American boy's coming of age in Alabama during the Civil Rights era in the Southern US. This one is about a girl from a European-American family in Mississippi during the same historical period.

Of course in a larger sense we're still in that era, and still struggling to come together, as we have been ever since slavery -- even as scientifically we now know there's really no such thing as "race" at all. But then it was always about culture and economics, not biology. Anyway - I really liked this book, too.

The Patron Saint of Red Chevys by Kay Sloan (2004)

Jubilee and her sister are young white teens in a small Mississippi town in 1963 when their father discovers the body of their mother, Bernice, fatally stabbed in her lovingly maintained red 1948 Chevy truck. Bernice's jazz singing in town, and her tolerant views on race, had made her unpopular locally with other whites, and rumors about the murder persist for years as the family struggles with the aftermath of the tragedy.

Jubilee is very much her mother's daughter. She takes charge of her mother's Chevy truck, with its hula-dancer dashboard ornament (Bernice's "patron saint"), and the vehicle becomes for her a surrogate mother and magic carpet ride through many adventures as she grows up. Thanks to some of these experiences, such as a visit to the State Fair with other white teens on what turns out to be "Negro night," Jubilee becomes certain that she will never fit in, in Mississippi. When she sees a magazine photo of students in Berkeley, California she has a sort of epiphany, and she knows she must go there and be a part of the country she sees in the picture. Somehow, she does manage to get there and start a new life.

At first, in Berkeley, Jubilee is as much an outsider as she had been in Mississippi, and that's disapointing, but eventually she does find friends and a life for herself there, and gains new perspective on her family, too.

Sloan captures amazingly well the spirit of involvement and confident experimentation that supercharged the Bay Area in the 1960s, and she paints vivid images of the Northern California landscape that formed the background to that cultural movement. [I particularly appreciated this aspect of the novel, since I grew up in Northern California and deeply appreciate the landscape there. As for the Bay Area, I was there too during the time Sloan writes about. That time and place are rarely portrayed by writers in a way that feels true to me, or does them justice, but Sloan succeeds.]

The broader context of Jubilee's life, America in a major period of transition, is equally well portrayed, and it's interesting to revisit that time now, when we're in another such time of turmoil, a backlash of racial prejudice whipped up by a minority but made large by the media. A novel like this puts things into perspective.

The book received recognition as a young adult novel by the ALA, and indeed older teens can enjoy Jubilee's strong voice and will identify with her search for her heart's true home during years of wrenching change. But it wasn't really written, published, or promoted for the YA market (which starts with much younger readers), it was written for adults. Adult readers will find this an interesting view of fairly recent times, especially if they are old enough to remember them. And of course they will see the coming of age theme from a very different vantage point. 

For me, the juxtaposition of Mississippi (which feels like a completely alien culture to me even now) and Northern California (my home ground), as experienced by the same character an a single story, shed a new sort of light on my understanding of the US as we are now.

[adapted from my SLJ review]
Here's an interview with the author about the writing of the book - http://www.southernscribe.com/zine/authors/Sloan_Kay.htm
PS - looking for an illo that might have been the magazine photo that inspired Jubilee to move to Berkeley, I came across these two - the first from the sixties, the second from 2008 (from
http://clog.dailycal.org/2008/11/05/takin-it-to-the-streets-obamas-win-provokes-post-election-euphoria/ )... gives one hope.

Finally - If two books make for a trend, I'm feeling in a "midcentury coming of age stories" frame of mind here, between Bombingham and Red Chevys. Two more books come to mind - Walter Moseley's Blue Light, set in the Bay Area in the Sixties, and Patti Dickinson's Hollywood the Hard Way: A Cowboy's Journey, about an Oklahoma boy's journey west across the Fifties landscape. All four books are very different from one another yet they all convey a wonderful sense of the time and perhaps, read together, they'd make a very interesting discussion series. Too often the Fifties and Sixties are seen as different worlds, but really they were a seamless story, if you were paying attention.


1 comment:

Kay Sloan said...

Thank you for this splendid review of my novel. I just now stumbled upon it and greatly appreciate your insights on the narrative!