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The Good Negress: A Novel

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Harold D. Vursell Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters. The year is 1963 and young Denise Palms has rejoined her family in Detroit where she must work to make a place for herself and prepare for the arrival of her mother's new baby. The baby will mean the end of Denise's afterschool lessons with a stern teacher who insists that Denise learn to speak "proper" English to make herself heard. Verdelle's intuition and ear allow her to dramatize precise moments of Denise's self-recognition and, in the process, ...

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The Good Negress: A Novel

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Overview

Harold D. Vursell Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters. The year is 1963 and young Denise Palms has rejoined her family in Detroit where she must work to make a place for herself and prepare for the arrival of her mother's new baby. The baby will mean the end of Denise's afterschool lessons with a stern teacher who insists that Denise learn to speak "proper" English to make herself heard. Verdelle's intuition and ear allow her to dramatize precise moments of Denise's self-recognition and, in the process, offer an inside look at a maturing intelligence. THE GOOD NEGRESS marks the arrival of an original voice in contemporary fiction. "Truly extraordinary."—Toni Morrison. A QUALITY PAPERBACK BOOK CLUB selection.

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Editorial Reviews

Toni Morrison
Truly Extraordinary.
Mirabella
A stunning debut.
New York Times Book Review
[Verdelle] illuminates the way language itself can both reflect and circumscribe a person's character and experience.
Publishers Weekly - Cahners\\Publishers_Weekly
In a particularly accomplished debut, Verdelle imbues her ambitious novel with a confident style, finely realized characters and a strikingly original first-person voice. In the early 1960s, 12-year-old Denise Palms, who has been living with her maternal grandmother in rural Virginia for five years, is summoned home to Detroit to care for her expectant mother, Margarete, new stepfather and adored older brothers. Neesey knows little of the world beyond Granma'am's country life but is excited to rejoin her two siblings who, in her absence, have become very different from each other: David is reliable and implacable, but unfocused Luke edward constantly courts trouble. At the local public school, Denise's intellectual promise catches the attention of Gloria Pearson, an idealistic young teacher, who works tirelessly to perfect Denise's backwater English and thereby raise her pupil's expectations for her future. Denise thrives under Gloria's tutelage, but conflict arises when her family's needs and her mentor's desires clash. At the same time, Luke edward's life slowly begins to spiral out of control when he gets caught stealing. Denise must become the fulcrum of her family's problems as she attempts to define her own identity. Verdelle imaginatively uses Denise's subtly evolving language to mirror the girl's growing awareness. Her characters, especially Margarete and Granma'am, are convincingly human in their true-to-life imperfections. Consistently absorbing and beautifully detailed, Verdelle's novel brings universal truths to an affecting study of adolescence.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a particularly accomplished debut, Verdelle imbues her ambitious novel with a confident style, finely realized characters and a strikingly original first-person voice. In the early 1960s, 12-year-old Denise Palms, who has been living with her maternal grandmother in rural Virginia for five years, is summoned home to Detroit to care for her expectant mother, Margarete, new stepfather and adored older brothers. Neesey knows little of the world beyond Granma'am's country life but is excited to rejoin her two siblings who, in her absence, have become very different from each other: David is reliable and implacable, but unfocused Luke edward constantly courts trouble. At the local public school, Denise's intellectual promise catches the attention of Gloria Pearson, an idealistic young teacher, who works tirelessly to perfect Denise's backwater English and thereby raise her pupil's expectations for her future. Denise thrives under Gloria's tutelage, but conflict arises when her family's needs and her mentor's desires clash. At the same time, Luke edward's life slowly begins to spiral out of control when he gets caught stealing. Denise must become the fulcrum of her family's problems as she attempts to define her own identity. Verdelle imaginatively uses Denise's subtly evolving language to mirror the girl's growing awareness. Her characters, especially Margarete and Granma'am, are convincingly human in their true-to-life imperfections. Consistently absorbing and beautifully detailed, Verdelle's novel brings universal truths to an affecting study of adolescence. Author tour. (Mar.)
Library Journal
This excellent first novel examines issues of the black experience in America in a new voice. It is the coming-of-age story of Denise Palms, who leaves her grandmother's rural home to return to her family in Detroit. Denise's family expects her to concentrate on housework and childcare, but her teacher pushes her to spend time on afterschool lessons in diction and grammar in order to "better" herself. Language is the key to this novel, as the story is told in Denise's own voice, and the evolution of language in her life, as well as the questioning of the need to speak in unnatural words, plunges the book into greater depths than the simple plot would on its own. Contrasts between the urban and rural, home and the broader world, and men and women are emphasized throughout. Verdelle's ear for language is excellent, as is her portrayal of the emotional life of this young girl. Like many novels by African American women, this book portrays a matriarchy and the voicelessness of black women in the broader culture. Recommended for all libraries.-Marie F. Jones, Muskingum Coll. Lib., New Concord, Ohio
School Library Journal
YA-This first novel by an exceptional writer indicates the wide scope of the African American female experience. Set in Virginia and Detroit during the 1950s and 1960s, the story concerns a young black girl who is encouraged by her teacher to shed her southern ``back woods'' ways. Neesy is astonished to learn that the proper way of spelling and pronouncing her name is Denise. More than anything, she wants to be educated, and does not want to spend her life as a ``good negress.'' For to be a good negress is never to look beyond one's station in life, to merely construct a self where expectation and performance are low. Forced to leave her grandmother's house in rural Virginia to move to Detroit to live with her pregnant mother and her mother's new husband, Denise begins to resent the fact that at 14 her education will end in order to attend to her mother's newborn. Encouraged to ``jump to the moon'' by her teacher, she continues to study despite her absence from school. Finally, her tenacity makes her triumphant. This is a difficult novel to read because of its flashbacks and foreshadowing, but its stress on education and a girl's coming of age are enough to tempt readers to stick with it to the end.-Michele L. Simms-Burton, George Washington University, DC
Lillian Lewis
This novel fits in the rite-of-passage genre quite nicely. Denise has lived in rural Virginia with her paternal grandmother for most of her life, but when her mother, who is about to give birth, asks for help with her housekeeping, Denise joins her family in Detroit. The adjustment Denise must make to a new physical environment is not nearly as daunting as the adjustment to her family (mother, grandmother, stepfather, and two brothers), who seem content to allow her to clean and cook. Once she begins school, she learns of her language deficiencies and how important it is for her to tackle and learn the King's English. It is this new realization that causes her internal conflicts between "helping out" her mother and pursuing her desire for an education. " The Good Negress" is a sad story, but the use of dialect and the descriptions of the present detailed by the explanations of the past make it an interesting tale of pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565120853
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Publication date: 1/3/1995
  • Edition description: 1st ed
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 312
  • Product dimensions: 5.36 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 1.12 (d)

Meet the Author

A.J. Verdelle was born and raised in Washington, D.C., graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in political science, and went on for two postgraduate degrees in statistics and writing. She is founder and owner of Applied Statistics and Research, a consulting company in New York.

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Read an Excerpt

This Rain Coming



I knew I was sleepin too long. And as I have come to know myself, I think I felt her leavin, the door closin behind the belly at the end of my rope. When I did finally shake myself awake, I was at Granma'am's house. I got out of bed, tiptoed down the hall, and peered around the door frame into the quiet front room. Nobody there, or in the front yard. I walked back toward the kitchen, and, there at the line where the floor planks got wider, I had to stop and take a look: one boiled egg, bacon, and glass of brown juice, all sittin so orderly in one place on the table. I dragged a chair over to the open window and climbed up on it. I hung my neck through the window and looked out to the backyard. Granma'am was outside in the bleachin sun, bent over, pullin tomatoes off the vines.

I stretched farther out the window to see where Mama stood. She would be standin more in the shade, havin conversation. Or maybe foldin clothes she was takin off the line. I reached farther out to see her feet underneath the long white sheets. No feet. Granma'am must have heard my elbow slip. She turned as if I called. "Well, good mornin, sleepyhead," she said, and she was inside, the screen door slappin, before I got down off the chair.

"Hi, Granma'am. Where's Mama?" I answered.

Granma'am had red and green and yellow-orange tomatoes stretched out in a dip in her upturned housedress. "Well, hi is you, Baby Sister? You ready for some breakfast?" She has turned her back to me before I can nod my head. One at the time, she lays the tomatoes on the wood board by the sink. Then she brushes off her dress front with her hand and goes over to the big blackVulcan stove that anchored the kitchen's back wall. Her cotton stockings were thick, and she had them rolled down below her knees. There was a bulge on each right side, a knot she had twisted to hold her leggings up.

"Sit down to the table, Baby Sister." My place at the table was set directly across from the stove. In time, from that place, and that kitchen, I will know all the Vulcans dents and injuries. I will cause some more.

Granma'am lifted warm bread across the table and onto the white plate with the yellow-green flowers round the edges. She pushed the plate closer to the egg. And then, in one of the wide chairs with beige and brown flecked vinyl seats and backs, the one to my right, Granma'am sat down. "Say your blessin, and have your breakfast, Baby Sister." Her hand stretched out and pressed down my hair where sleep had rumpled the edges up. That was the end of the sentence.

"Where's Mama?" I was screaming; my voice was quavery, wild, quick. I jumped up. The chair legs scraped against the kitchen floor. I stood as tall as I could on the floor. I looked directly at a face and mouth that did not move, eyes that looked surprised but ready too, somehow. The whole situation answered, with a shudder and a sucking sound: she's gone.

I tore away. from the table, my arms heavy like they was wet and wrung out. They swung very late behind my hurly-burly hurt. I upset the neat breakfast place with my wet rags for arms. Off the plate and the table went the swiped boiled egg, it landed in the chair, it rolled off onto the floor. The shell crumpled at the compact hit, and the egg rested there, displaced and on its side. The cracked pieces of shell hung together; it was that tough-but-thin inside skin. One boiled breakfast egg, preserved through the fall.

I ran out to the front yard again, in just what I had slept in and in my bare feet. I wrapped my fingers around two of the boards on the gate. I looked in one direction down the what-they-called road. I didn't recognize the place or its colors. It had no blocks or comers or streets, no other two-families with shutters. No traffic lights, no pavement. No Detroit. Disbelief is an emotion, you know. Like an ocean and its major pulse, it can overtake you. it can blind your eyes and block your ear canals. It can knock you to a depth.

Both my hopefulness and my faith in my mother went flat. I felt so completely betrayed.

After many choked breaths, I collapsed at the gate. Left by Mama second and by Daddy first, now I was sent away. My behind on the dirt was naked, and the soil wasn't dry or rich. It wasn't grainy or rocky under my skin. It wasn't cold, but grass wasn't growin. It was in between everything, thats how ordinary it was. Ordinary, just ordinary dirt.

When I finally started to see again I noticed that the dirt in the yard had been raked. Overtop of the lines of rake teeth were two crazy curvy paths. My dashing feet -- yesterday in shoes and today without. Down the middle of all that dashing hurly-girly were two other lines. The little small ovals of my mother's high heels. I stayed there and looked hard a while, my mouth hanging open, my tongue drying off.

I had this tantrum at Granma'am's front gate, where I had run to to look for my mother. This was my down home coming-out scene, a slow motion moment when I got left where Mama grew up, in history. This was when the years started to yawn. I opened my mouth wide, and I roared. Anybody could hear knew I was there. I stomped, and I wailed. Some people walked by, nobody I knew, and since I wasn't seeing so well at that moment, it all went by me, their slowing and staring and shared looks with my granma'am.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2005

    Sow's Ear to Silk Purse

    A.J. Verdelle tells the compelling story of a young girl who is destined to become a working class drudge just like her mother until the intervention of an uncompromising educator who recognizes her brilliance. Miss Pearson inspires Denise to shrug off her country ways and don the mantle of the educated, but the task is not completed before an addition to the family threatens Denise¿s further education. The Good Negress is an earthy coming of age story whose realism took me back to some of my grandmother¿s favorite sayings and doings. The only disappointment was the disjointed flashbacks which make the story choppy at times. Still, the language is lyrical and the characters amazingly drawn.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 1, 2000

    A 'Good' Book; Could Have Been Better.

    THE GOOD NEGRESS would have gotten a higher rating from me if it didn't shift so much in time frames. First she's in the country, then she's in the city, then she thinks about the time that something happened in the country that was relevent to the present, and the story takes us back there, then stays. Then, we are back in the present, without so much as an acknowledgment of the transition. WHEW!! Still, this coming of age story was pretty good. It felt like more of a filler during my downtime, but had enough to keep me interested.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 1999

    The Good Negress Tastes Great

    The Good Negress is a classic in the tradition of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, The Color Purple and The Bluest Eye. Through the eyes of Neesy, the main charactor, the author provides a keen insight into the down-home life of a young lady raised in the loving bosom of the south, and her attempts to aclimate herself to both a strange yet familiar city and family. All of the charactors are real; the grandmother who is loving, wise, and life-smart as opposed to book-smart; the beloved, handsome and 'no-good' brother, the older, hardworking, reliable yet boring brother, the formerly glamourous mother, the stepfather who is kind but cannot take the place of Neesy's real father . . . the list of charactors goes on and on, and each one is so real, so accurately represented that the reader feels as if these are people that we know, perhaps from our childhood. As Denise begins her transformation from a shy, countrified, child whose interests are too big for her home town, into a woman who's quest for knowledge and information drives her to study day and night, and as she struggles to keep her family together and her past alive through images and rememberances of her father, the reader is taken on a ride that most will be loath to end. As someone who reads a lot of current so-called 'African American' fiction, I can tell you quite honestly that buying and reading this book was like walking into a restaurant on a hunch, and finding out that it has the best food in the city. It was fulfilling, delicious, and money well spent.

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