Mon April 5, 2004
A Sunday In June
In A Sunday in May, Perry has produced a "prequel" to Stigmata. This novel takes place again in Johnson Creek, Alabama, south of Union Springs, and chronicles the lives of the Mobley family from 1915 until 1963.
By Don Noble
Readers of Phyllis Alesia Perry's first novel, Stigmata, will remember that the protagonist, Lizzie, was considered insane, indeed suicidal, and was institutionalized because doctors believed she was mutilating herself on the wrists and ankles. Readers came to learn that Lizzie was in touch, in communion with, an ancestress, Ayo, who had been a slave in irons on a ship in the Middle Passage, and that Lizzie was manifesting in the 1980s and '90s what Ayo had endured in the 1850s.
In A Sunday in May, Perry has produced a "prequel" to Stigmata. This novel takes place again in Johnson Creek, Alabama, south of Union Springs, and chronicles the lives of the Mobley family from 1915 until 1963. Joy and Frank Mobley have three daughters, Grace, Mary Nell, and Eva. All three girls possess supernatural or spiritual powers.
Born in 1900, Grace, like her granddaughter yet to come, Lizzie, is visited by the spirit of Ayo, her slave grandmother. This ghost sometimes inhabits Grace and even takes her back to prewar times, when Ayo was being whipped, or farther back to when Ayo was in shackles on the slave ship, or even farther when Ayo was just a girl on the beach in Africa who saw something.
"I thought at first it was a big bird. . . . I'm lying there with my face in the sand and one eye closed and off in the distance these huge white fluttering things." The fluttering things are not a huge bird but the sails of a slave ship, and Ayo is taken.
Many will recognize in this "ghost" similarities to Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. The unhappy, restless dead do not always go into that good night gently-and sometimes not at all.
The other two girls, Mary Nell and Eva, have a different gift, or perhaps more accurately, burden. They are spiritually one. They can sometimes hear one another's thoughts, and one can often feel what the other is feeling even if they are apart.
Frank and Joy, their parents, hate and fear these gifts." They are respectable people, Christians, and have no use for the supernatural, herbalism, hoodoo, or visions. To the Mobleys, this is all "against Jesus," and they fear the destructive power of gossip in the Johnson Creek community.
But what is given to these girls cannot be taken away. Mary Nell marries Henry, a feckless lout, and on a second Sunday in June, the Sunday of the title, Henry rapes his 13-year-old sister-in-law Eva, as Eva is walking to church. Mary Nell knows, feels it even, and at the same time cannot know, cannot allow herself to know what she knows perfectly. She can't blame Henry, so she blames Eva. F
rom that moment forward, life for the Mobley family can never be the same. Eva and Mary Nell will lose their bond. Grace will desert her husband and family, move to New York City, and, finally, die in a place called "Montana," wherever that is.
This novel, besides its grip on the reader as pure story, has some attributes of African-American fiction that should be mentioned. The dialogue is flawless, suggested by phrasing and idiom, utterly convincing and never sinking into phonetic Uncle Remus spelling.
The two novels taken together make a strong case for the existence of a useable, recoverable past for African-Americans. Perry provides a genealogical chart in the endpapers of Stigmata as detailed as if the characters were Scottish aristocracy. This family is not cut off from its past. They are formed by it and burdened by it. They know their family history eight generations back, and, as surely as with Faulkner's Compson family, their past is not lost. For better or worse, it's not even past.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.