The author returns to the Arkansas setting of They Tell Me of a Home (2005).
It’s 1941, and Gustavus and Emma Jean Peace have just had their seventh child. Gus had hoped to be through having babies. Emma Jean—disappointed with six boys—is determined to try one last time for a girl. When God doesn’t give her a daughter, she decides to make one herself. Naming the new baby “Perfect” and blackmailing the midwife to aid her in her desperate deception, Emma Jean announces the birth of a girl. For eight years, Emma Jean outfits her youngest child in pretty dresses, gives her all the indulgences she longed for in her own blighted girlhood and hides the truth from everyone—even herself. But when the truth comes out, Emma Jean is a pariah and her most-treasured child becomes a freak. It’s hard to know quite what to make of this impassioned, imperfect novel. While another writer might have chosen to complement the sensationalism of his scenario with a tempered style, Black narrates his tale in the key of melodrama. He devotes a considerable number of pages to Emma Jean’s experience as the unloved, darker (and therefore ugly) daughter, but since no amount of back story can justify Emma-Jean’s actions, these passages become redundant. And, most crucially, Black builds toward the point when Perfect discovers that she’s a boy, but seems confused about what to do with his character after this astonishing revelation. At the same time, the author offers a nuanced portrait of an insular community’s capacity to absorb difference, and it’s a cold reader who will be unmoved by his depictions.
Original and earnest, informed both by human limitation and human potential.