In this debut historical novel, a Southern African-American enclave struggles with a public tragedy.
In the early 1960s, the African-American community in Sipsey, Alabama, is rocked by a scandal centered on a woman named Candida Ellen “Sweetberry” Armstrong. Sweetberry has spent two decades working menial cleaning jobs, raising two college-bound daughters as a single mother, and carrying on an affair with a prominent married man, Deacon Josiah Hess. Her hard times seem to finally be over when she becomes engaged to Luther McGill, a local man who went to Philadelphia to make his fortune—through both legal and illegal means—and returned home a success. But this dream is shattered when Hess beats McGill to death in a jealous rage outside the First Macedonia Baptist Church. The novel builds from this central tragedy, exploring the causes of the trauma, and its effects on not only Sweetberry and her family, but the entire community. Much of this plays out in the courtroom at Hess’ trial, in front of an all-white jury. Sipsey—and more specifically, First Macedonia—is as much at the heart of the book as Sweetberry herself. The novel’s greatest asset is Gosa-Summerville’s ear for the language of the townsfolk, and her ability to interweave their different voices together. Early in the novel, a communal narrative voice responds to a rumor of Sweetberry’s suicide attempt: “This drew blood from the turnip! How dare she? Wasn’t she God’s creation?” The book’s language is further enriched with the seamless inclusion of hymns. In one moving scene, Sweetberry’s plaintive call of “Who shall I be?” is answered with the spiritual “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” The author’s handling of the story is a bit less smooth. Events and information are often telegraphed, over-summarized, and repeated in different ways. Little is held back, so the various plot points, while intriguing, never come to the reader as surprises or revelations. This could be a leaner, more shapely novel. Still, the sound of each page is a pleasure.
A stirring tale rooted in the language and experience of the Alabama community it depicts.