A Southern woman explores in unremarkable prose the genesis and evolution of her racial attitudes.
Gunst (Born Fi’ Dead: A Journey Through the Jamaican Posse Underworld, 1995) was born into a privileged, fairly liberal Jewish household in South Carolina; her family once manufactured Sergeant’s flea collars. To a great extent, this is the story of a remarkable black woman, Rhoda Cobin Lloyd, who worked for decades as a nurse and nanny in the Gunst household. The author repeatedly refers to Rhoda as her “mother,” and her book ends as she chases down the few court records referring to her former nanny, then connects with Rhoda’s relatives. There’s a way in which this is also a conventional troubled-child memoir. The author was overweight. Mother didn’t seem to love her and said unkind things, dissuading Laurie from applying to Radcliffe by saying she wasn’t “Radcliffe material.” Daddy worried about the shape of her nose, drank too much and fooled around with another woman. Gunst became a cocaine addict while she was completing her Ph.D. (Harvard will no doubt be saddened to learn the source of her classroom euphoria.) She married twice and became an authority on Jamaican posses. Meanwhile, she relates without a scintilla of incredulity the tale of a Jamaican boy cured of debilitating head pain and a mysterious high fever by a “priestess” who invoked spirit aid. After Rhoda died in 1986, Gunst frequently conversed with her ghost, who continued to hang around like a good nanny. The author has a compelling story, especially for readers willing to suspend disbelief from a high, high branch. But she consistently eschews fresh language in favor of cliché: she has strokes of good fortune, when she isn’t a nervous wreck. The trite prose ineluctably leads to banalities, which in turn make even the most bizarre events seem somehow inconsequential.
A strange, unhappy marriage of the weird and the conventional. (B&w photos throughout)