Monday, May 6, 2013

Book Review: Yes'm by J.M. Duke

I grew up in a small southern town. The biggest events to occur there happened almost 100 years before I was born and remain the single most identifiable landmark in the town's history. Those battles of the Civil War were early steps in the long battle for equal civil rights that culminated in the fiery, passionate hotbed of the 1960's.

J.M. Duke's new book, Yes'm, could almost have been written about my childhood, and indeed, Duke and I grew up in the same town and our experiences are almost parallel. Reading her book was like stepping back into my childhood and hearing the soft southern voices of my neighbors, and feeling the same subtle confusion about the relationships I observed between the white and black inhabitants of our town.

So step back into the 1950's and see it through the eyes of a child who loves the family's black housekeeper with a child's blindness to race, age, and politics. The story follows Sammie, a girl with a mind of her own, through gentle summer days, childhood scrapes and the gentle way of life that was so comfortable--unless one looked under the covers. And Sammie constantly pulled back the covers, asking disquieting questions of her elders and Pearl the housekeeper as she tried to understand the nuances of the relationships around her. Why must the "colored" help eat their meals outside and never in the kitchen? Why was her grandmother so angry to find Sammie eating at the same table with Pearl? Why should she not speak to a black man if she wanted to?

We did not have a housekeeper when I was young, but we did have Sarah, the lady who cleaned the Catholic church. We children loved Sarah. She often passed our gate on the way to her home just a half-mile down the road from our house. I loved her soft, "Afternoon, Miz Connelly," and to listen to my mother and Sarah's conversation over our garden gate about the flowers in my mother's garden. I asked one time, "Can Sarah come in for tea?" and was taken aback by the sudden stiffness in both my mother and Sarah. "Oh no, honey, I've got to get on home," Sarah had said suddenly. Some time later we went to visit Sarah at her home. My mother insisted we wear gloves and Sunday hats. We were very much the genteel ladies coming to call. Sarah was gracious and welcoming and I will never forget her beautiful gardens overflowing with flowers, and the beehives in the center of it all. It was years later when I was an adult that I understood the significance of that visit--white ladies visiting a black lady's home. Surely my mother had many soul-searching moments before she took that step.

My parents, like Sammie's, were not in favor of civil rights. They were, like the adults in Sammie's world, products of a segregated world where the lines were clear and not to be crossed. Sammie's story follows the historic events of the 1960's placed in the context of a child-becoming-young-woman's world. Sammie's parents gave her one great gift: they did not pass their prejudices on to her (and I am grateful to my parents that they did the same).

Sammie grew up wrapped in the arms of her beloved Pearl, asking questions that often were left unanswered or unsatisfactorily answered, leaving her to form her own opinions and to judge people based on who they were and not on the color of their skin. It could have been a dangerous path for a young girl in those troubled times, as her cousin discovered when facing the wrath of her family because of her friendships with her black schoolmates.

J.M. Duke has written a book that resonates with those of us who lived through the civil rights era, but it also speaks to today's generations as the world continues to struggle with racial tensions, civil rights issues, and suspicions of anyone "different" than ourselves. Duke's voice is clear, her descriptions right on the money, and her portrayal of a child's efforts to make sense of an often nonsensical world makes Yes'm a story worthy of personal reflection, and well suited to exploration by book discussion groups.

Copyright 2012 Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


JoAnn ( Scene Through My Eyes) said...

A wonderful review - and sounds like a book I must have. It is indeed, quite similar in style to a book I have written about my early childhood growing up in Alaska in the 1950s - though not with the racial overtones - we were not involved in that, fortunately, but I did have wonderful adventures in a new world. Lovely review. Thank you.

Nance said...

I was a product of the Midwest and was probably 12 or 13 before I saw a person of another race in person -- not on TV. I only saw white faces and heard Midwestern speech as a child. My parents weren't prejudiced or biased; they didn't preach (for or against) color or race or religion. They, like me, were probably just not exposed. This book sounds interesting . . . and will give me a perspective I didn't have the luxury of, before.

Brighid said...

Thanks for the heads up. Another book to add to the long list of: to read.

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