An angry, viscerally felt debut tale of bad blood and rotten body parts, recounted by a black girl in Mississippi trying to make sense of her burgeoning sexuality amid the sin-scarred folk around her.
Fourteen-year-old Maddy Dangerfield’s first awkward step into adolescence is drawing a flat-chested naked Eve in red lipstick over the page of Genesis in her Bible study class. Maddy is her Mama’s one hope in life: Faye Dangerfield is a God-fearing, generous-fleshed, “useful” woman who serves as a maid to white people of Pyke County in order to pay her alcoholic husband’s gambling debts to Jesus Sanders, the town bully. Maddy’s no-good-nik illiterate daddy has one arm, Mama’s mother having chopped the other off and fed it to the hog when he was caught fooling around with Mama’s hustler sister Pip—who lies in her house on Commitment Road, dying of breast cancer. Rounding out the gallery of exemplars to guide Maddy into adulthood is Uncle Sugar, a castrated “number” languishing in jail after being set upon by a mob avenging his rape of a local white girl. Sagging flesh, rotten “titties,” and the paralyzing fingers of men plague Maddy the summer she is sent solo to care for her aunt Pip because her Mama can’t face her, and the novel gradually takes form around Maddy’s redemptive care of the fallen women. Vernon’s prose is colloquial and fleshed with figurative leaps, the brutality of her images alternately fascinating and repellant. There is a hard-bitten story in each of these characters, and young Maddy, largely self-taught from the encyclopedias Mama buys her, remains wary, determined not to confuse indebtedness to Jesus Sanders with allegiance to the real Jesus. While the denouement could go any way—how will Maddy be wrenched from her Edenic innocence?—Vernon uses Pip’s illness to steer Maddy into a final feminist baptism, in an over-the-top transcendent vision that ultimately strains the reader’s credulity.
An eloquent, if bizarrely childlike, and unflinching coming-of-ager that bears mountains of grief, passion, and guilt.