A literary novel offers a coming-of-age story in the Jim Crow South.
Ruth-Ann Weathering is something special among the African-American community of Mandarin, Florida. When she completes the eighth grade at the young age of 13, she is already smarter than Mr. Turner, her teacher. Mr. Turner—considered something of a prodigy himself in that rural community—begs Ruth-Ann’s parents to send her to high school: “Ruth-Ann is the best of what the future can be. If we give her the chance—we can help build—for our people—a world that your folks and my folks—that you and I—never dreamed of.” The narrative, which follows Ruth-Ann from the ages of 13 to 20 during the early 20th century, shows that she is indeed a uniquely clever and observant girl even if she doesn’t quite end up on the track that Mr. Turner hopes for her. She falls in love with Stephen, a scion of the family called the “Black Wenders,” who own hundreds of acres along the St. John’s River. Ruth-Ann and Stephen both have ambitions that will take them further than their parents, but the age-old tragedies of poverty, misfortune, and malicious racism on the parts of their white neighbors prove that overcoming anything in the Jim Crow South is all but impossible. Covin (Black Politics in a Time of Transition, 2017) writes in a lyrical prose that perfectly summons the rhythms and magic of the tale’s rural setting: “Later on, they would each, one by one, get Ruth-Ann’s story, her full, true story of what had happened. But not this night. This night it was too new, too exciting, too big. It would have to remain mythical and undefined, an occasion for wild extravagances and craziness.” An introductory note reveals that this novel was praised—though rejected—by Toni Morrison while she was working as an editor for Random House in 1977, and it certainly fits within the tradition of black Southern authors that includes Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. The plot unfurls slowly, but the story feels simultaneously ancient and evergreen. The absorbing book may have slipped through the cracks in 1977, but readers should be grateful to have it now.
An African-American tale crafted with wisdom and poetry.