Skin color fuels sibling rivalries in this family melodrama.
Vernon and Verlene Mays, a multiracial couple in DeKalb, Texas, pass on a rainbow of complexions to their four children. Family discord ensues as their eldest daughter Verna, a light-skinned beauty, conceives an intense loathing for her darker, chubbier sister Viola Grace for no clear reason aside from Viola Grace’s unfashionable looks, studiousness and angelic disposition. Verna’s meanness blossoms in high school; she cuts classes, hangs with bad girls and sighs and rolls her eyes at everything her family does. Sounds pretty typical for a teenager, but Verlene, a woman with strict Christian values, is not one to brook a jot of rebelliousness in a child and packs her daughter off to a church boarding school. Verna runs away, taking with her the story’s sole element of trouble and complexity; with her off the stage for many chapters, the novel becomes a staid chronicle of happiness and achievement. Viola does brilliantly in college and medical school and acquires an upstanding surgeon boyfriend; her brother Vernon, Jr. and sister Vernice are also paragons. Verna-less, the family gathers for joyous yuletide celebrations (primly devoid of the “pagan symbolism” of the Christmas tree) where they toast their successes and give thanks to God before rushing out to buy new Bibles. “ ‘God is good all the time, and everything is just fine,’ ” Viola Grace observes in a fitting summary of most of the narrative. It’s a relief when the prodigal Verna finally resurfaces, beaten unconscious, with years of hard living under her belt; the tearful reunions have hardly subsided when a new rivalry develops over Verna’s neglected children, whom Viola Grace has taken in. Verna is an interesting character—bruised, often nasty, aching over her estrangement from her censorious family. Unfortunately, the author disapproves of her as strongly as the other characters do; the story is so intent on deploring Verna and applauding her perfect siblings that we never learn what makes her tick.
A stiff saga of righteousness overcoming a bad seed.