Mother of Pearl

Mother of Pearl

3.6 36
by Melinda Haynes

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Capturing all the rueful irony and racial ambivalence of small-town Mississippi in the late 1950s, Melinda Haynes' celebrated novel is a wholly unforgettable exploration of family, identity, and redemption. Mother of Pearl revolves around twenty-eight-year-old Even Grade, a black man who grew up an orphan, and Valuable Korner, the fifteen-year-old white

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Capturing all the rueful irony and racial ambivalence of small-town Mississippi in the late 1950s, Melinda Haynes' celebrated novel is a wholly unforgettable exploration of family, identity, and redemption. Mother of Pearl revolves around twenty-eight-year-old Even Grade, a black man who grew up an orphan, and Valuable Korner, the fifteen-year-old white daughter of the town whore and an unknown father. Both are passionately determined to discover the precious things neither experienced as children: human connection, enduring commitment, and, above all, unconditional love. A startlingly accomplished mixture of beauty, mystery, and tragedy, Mother of Pearl marks the debut of an extraordinary literary talent.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Pat Conroy author of Beach Music A first novel of immense and staggering power. Something absolutely wonderful is going on here and it might be the surprise one feels encountering greatness.

Chicago Tribune Remarkable.

The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) Haynes is the real thing, a true artist, a genuine writer, and, in this book at least, a genius....Her characters live (do they ever) and Mother of Pearl transports us to the wilds of a different world.

Booklist (starred review) Both richly humorous and deeply tragic, this story leaves one wiser, and makes one understand something meaningful and important about life and human nature. Haynes speaks the truth in a story that is astonishingly powerful.

Chicago Tribune Memorable...Less a portrait of the South in the 1950s and more a tale about how necessity forces people to create bonds outside their own blood...Haynes works boldly with this large and eccentric cast...her prose has a rugged, muscular quality that is highly expressive and constantly surprising.

San Francisco Chronicle Book Review Like William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor before her, Melinda Haynes recognizes that Southern culture has a lush affinity with the elements of classical tragedy...A pleasure to witness.

The New York Times Book Review Welcome to Petal, Mississippi, a real place on the map, but in Melinda Haynes' first novel, a fictional one as entangling as kudzu. In language as profuse and vigorous as that Southern vine, Haynes tells the story of Valuable Korner, a fatherless girl named after a real estate sign....A heart-thumper.

Publishers Weekly (starred review) In prose both rugged and beautiful, Haynes plumbs the secrets of the South in her stunning debut novel...She is fearless in portraying her characters' flaws, their pettiness and racism, their erring thoughts, but she's also merciful, letting them grow and change during the course of the narrative...This wise, luminous novel demonstrates her great gifts for language, courageous storytelling, and compassion.

Shelby Hearon author of Owning Jolene Mother of Pearl is a monumental novel set in the noble-speaking backcountry of Faulkner's Mississippi. In a luminous voice, original and true, Melinda Haynes tells the story, straight as a tree and deep as a pond, of the savage miseries and saving graces of the past and present in the Deep South. This is an unforgettable, heart-bending book.

San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
A memorable debut.... Like William Faulkner and Flannery O'Coner before her, Haynes recognizes that southern culture has a lush affinity with the elements of classical tradegy.... Mother of Pearl is a definite original.
Baltimore Sun
Haynes' voice is piquant and poetic, carving out its own kind of perfection. Spilling over with color, beauty, violence, wisdom and simply astonishing writing, Mother of Pearl is a gift to readers everywhere.
New York Times Book Review
Welcome to Petal, Miss., a real place on the map, but in Melinda Haynes' first novel, Mother of Pearl, a fictional one as entangling as kudzu. In language as profuse and vigorous as that Southern vine, Haynes tells the stories, among others, of Valuable Korner, a fatherless girl named after a real estate sign; Even Grade, an orphan, now grown, who was named for a road; and Joleb Green, whose name comes from a father he does not yet know.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In prose both rugged and beautiful, Haynes plumbs the secrets of the South in her stunning debut novel. Set in Petal, Miss., across the Leaf River from Hattiesburg, the narrative opens in the summer of 1956, shortly after Even Grade, a 27-year-old black man, has met Joody Two Sun, a seer who's known as a witch, and not long after Valuable Korner, the 14-year-old daughter of the town's one loose woman, gets her Blessing of Blood, as Joody Two Sun calls it. Even, so named from the note his mother left when she abandoned him at a Memphis orphanage, is a decent man, kindheartedly building a family of friends; while Valuable, the daughter of a dying Southern line, an orphan of sorts herself, is deeply in need of family. Valuable and Jackson McLain, the boy down the street, fall in love, and Haynes captures that phenomenon delicately and persuasively. In a heartbeat Valuable is pregnant, and as Jackson is forced to move away, Valuable turns to Joody and Even for support as she carries the baby she comes to think of as Pearl. Despite Even's help, Valuable, whose family hides secrets far darker than this pregnancy, seems doomed to pay for the sins of the past. Indeed, Haynes' capacious novel is very much about the justice wrought by destiny, but it is also about finding family, people who nurture, forgive and care for each other; in the novels resolution, those most deserving of love are brought together. Haynes is fearless in portraying her character's flaws, their pettiness and racism, their erring thoughts, but she's also merciful, letting them grow and change during the course of the narrative. While perhaps too many of the characters take the stage, each with tragic accounts of their lives, Haynes nevertheless triumphs with a rare and memorable ensemble. This wise, luminous novel demonstrates her great gifts for language, courageous storytelling and compassion.
This dense, richly textured first novel was a much-talked-about Oprah Book Club selection when first published. Haynes captures the atmosphere of one corner of America in the Deep South, just as monumental social and political changes are set in motion—changes that are mirrored in the lives of the black-and-white inhabitants of Petal, Mississippi in the summer of 1956. The main story line follows the parallel love stories of Even Grade, a twenty-eight-year-old black orphan, and Valuable Korner, 15 years old, pregnant and white. Both are looking to create the family love and human connections they have missed. Both weave their days among the folk of Petal, a town with more than a small share of Southern eccentrics, bigots, dreamers and mystics. What happens to Valuable and her child that fateful year illuminates both the heights and depths of what we human beings can achieve when trying to learn to live together. The author's background as a portrait painter colors each character with a distinctive presence and purpose, although only Even, Valuable, Grace and Joody Two Suns really resonate in the reader's imagination. The blend of reality and magical realism brings to mind Francesca Lia Block, but the dense, elliptical prose style may obscure more mystery than the average, pressed-for-time teen reader can decipher. For those who persevere, teens will discover an important message: we must celebrate our common humanity, what makes us alike, while we recognize and appreciate what makes each of us so unique. The paperback contains an interview with the author, as well as a Readers' Club Guide. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students,and adults. 1999, Pocket Books, Washington Square Press, 464p, 24cm, $13.95. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Mary Arnold; MLS, YALSA Vice Pres., Maple Heights Lib., Maple Heights, OH, November 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 6)
Library Journal
YA-Set in the 1950s in Petal, MS, Mother of Pearl follows the intertwining stories of Even Grade, a 28-year-old black man, and Valuable Korner, the pregnant 15-year-old white daughter of the town whore. Even meets Valuable through his love interest, Joody Two Sun, a black woman whose ability to see the future makes her a constant consultant for the community. Val is searching for love and a family, and makes some unlikely connections. Elderly, self-educated Canaan, a custodian, works on his thesis, The Reality of the Negro, and reads Greek classics in the town library at night-after he's finished cleaning it; as a black man, he is not allowed admittance during its open hours. A hard-edged spinster shrewdly negotiates with a potential suitor, who is the town mortician with definite ideas of his own. Although much of the action involves the emotional well-being of the characters, there is a swiftly moving chapter that describes a raging flood and its aftermath. This realistic novel unflinchingly captures the bigotry of the times through actions and dialogue. The characters are fully drawn and the author conveys a good sense of time and place. The themes of identity, belonging, abandonment, and motherhood are examined with Southern angst edged with a sharp eye to reality.-Jean Johnston, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Roy Hoffman
...[A] fictional [town] as entangling as kudzu....Haynes gets away with [plot] contrivances...because of the sheer vitality of her prose....In the end...Petal still has its edgy charm. Summer here may be sweltering, but there's enough going on to keep the beauty parlor abuzz.
The New York Times Book Review
Chicago Tribune
There is no question that Haynes has written a remarkable first novel.
Kirkus Reviews
Newcomer Haynes writes swaying, shaded sentences in a promising debut that nicely realizes the atmosphere of Pearl, Mississippi, in the 1950s but that lacks an emotional decisiveness able to justify its prodigious length. What immediately strikes the reader is Haynes's style: grainy, rhythmic sentences whose music sometimes needs to be read aloud. As style, her prose is often beautiful and full of grace, but as communication it can be confusing, especially because one of the writer's narrative habits is to plop the reader down in the aftermath of an undescribed event and then describe it pages later. The story opens this way, and violently. A bottle is thrown at Canaan's head and he bleeds his way home. That incident sets the tone for the tale's other, mostly harmless oddities and personalities: Judy Tucson/Two Sun, who lives down by the river with sticks in her hair, issuing predictions given to her by the moon; lesbians Bea and Neva, guardians of Valuable, a motherless 15-year-old girl who furtively writes poetry and aches for companionship and love; Even Grade, a lonely young black man who falls in love with Judy; Jackson, a white boy who impregnates Valuable and leaves town; and Canaan himself, an elderly and sage janitor who reads Aeschylus and is composing a treatise on "The Reality of the Negro." Haynes's first is what might be called an "atmospheric" novel: curiosities of dialect and strange usages richly evoke a Mississippi town. The plot itself—a simple affair in which Valuable dies during childbirth, followed by subsequent reconciliations among the story's participants—is a thin string along which Haynes drapes her alluring language and sensibility. Fewof the characters, though, achieve permanence in the reader's memory. What lingers are moments, sayings, and the marvelous descriptions of sights and sounds in Pearl.

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Product Details

Washington Square Press
Publication date:
Oprah's Book Club Series
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Product dimensions:
5.33(w) x 8.27(h) x 1.27(d)
900L (what's this?)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Petal, Mississippi


Even Grade walked past the spot on the bridge where Canaan caught the bottle with his head and saw the blood mark was still there, but just barely. The two-week bake of August sun beginning to mask its humiliation, blending the old man's emission to a color like that of rusted girder. On a day not spent dealing with death, Even would have stopped one more time to wonder over the bigger insult: that Canaan's middle-aged forehead got split by glass and bled out, or that the bottle bearing skin and blood soared over a rail and dropped into the water that he loved. Death or no, Even's suspicion was the same as two weeks back: both. Both were equally bad.

Patting for a shirtfront pocket that wasn't there, he fixed a mark on the sun and gauged the time later than normal by half an hour; summed the earth's indifferent swing as more proof of inconsequential man. On an ordinary day he would have stood still in the spot — left foot in Hattiesburg, right foot in Petal — and considered the river Leaf. The way the trees leaned in low as if made curious by their reflection. The way those leaning trees formed a diminishing edge that followed the water like the furrow of a snake. On a day less strained he would have made a box of his hands and peered through like a blindered horse, feeling less overwhelmed by the viewing of segments. He had never known such colors. Never dreamed brown was such a rainbow. He'd always thought of brown as brown, the color of burnt toast or worn-out shoes. But after months on end he'd learned to parcel out the values into new shades fast approaching the limit of his imagination — Ten-Minute Tea. Steeped-Too-Long Tea. Barely Tea. Wet Bark. Sun-Baked Bark. Old-as-Sin Bark. Old Soggy Leaves. Just-Dropped Leaves. Fresh Wet Leaves. And these were just the browns. He was yet to go on to green, which he was just now beginning to see.

Sniffing the air, he drew in smells of hot grease and pork. Meat grilling somewhere inside Petal's boundaries. Still on the bridge, he searched the water, hopeful for a rainbow in spite of the approach of suppertime, spying out travel-blackened logs lying like sleepers inside a purple shade, but no rainbow. Too late for that. The sun so low, brown was just plain brown again. He glanced over once, saw a vague tea-colored ripple — catfish probably — and shrugged. Willie Brackett's blood was to his undershirt, red soaking in and turning stiff in the breeze, brushing against his arm like a crusty leaf. He walked on. Glanced up once to a maroon sun. Glanced back down again.

When Even passed under the caution light at Central and Main, he saw Canaan sitting on the warm deck of the loading dock of the Feed and Seed. Leaning against the wall, his shades on his bony nose, Canaan had put aside the bandage he'd worn for two weeks. On approach, Even saw the scar was healing up to that of question mark tilted to its side and he wondered over it. Canaan didn't stop reading. Just said from behind newsprint as Even approached, "I do say, Even Grade, somebody dead? Or Hercules Powder givin' overtime to their most talkative nigger? Which is it?"

"Somebody dead."

Canaan looked up. Sometimes when he was startled he took on a resemblance to that of dried-up mummy and that's how he looked then. His mouth frozen open inside a face so lined, tears or sweat or blood would never have a choice in direction. "Thy God, who?"

"Two somebodies — Willie Brackett and James Evans. You got something cold?"

Canaan handed him a green bottle and a slice of hard cheese. Sitting down to the edge of the loading dock beside a man old enough to be his father, Even bit into the cheddar and drank deep from his Coca-Cola. Canaan folded up his newspaper, crossed his arms over his chest, waiting. Realizing nothing would be coming out quick, he pushed his glasses up on his nose and said, "I've known Willie's mama since she got that boy — she ain't gonna make it through this one. Not this time. Lord, what a mess."

"If she'd got there 'fore I picked up his face and tied it back on with my shirt, she'd be dead right now."

"That why you wanderin' around in your undershirt?"

"Yes sir, it is." Even munched on the cheese and thought how good an apple would be with it.

"You there when it happened?"

"Almost. Left the area on break five minutes earlier — "

"You know how it happened?"

"I got me a pretty good idea." Even finished his cheese.

"Well, you wanna tell me 'fore I have to read the cleaned-up union version in the Hattiesburg American?"

Even looked back toward the bridge; wondering where to begin. Canaan knew most of it. That the "Bull Gang," a group of twenty-seven Negroes with varying degrees of mechanic skills, worked whatever the union said to work — scraping out, hosing down, tightening up, loosening what needed to be, by careful degrees. Doing during their swing every low-down shitty job that needed doing, deep down where nobody else wanted to go. He knew they did it with both eyes wide open and steady on their work buddy.

Canaan knew Even worked irregular hours. He knew it was against union regulations. He also knew it didn't matter worth a shit because the union wouldn't let in the Negro in 1956. Union needed the Bull Gang like they needed their balls, but they'd rather take a rusted knife to their own crotch than admit it. Could've used their dues, too. But that didn't matter, either. Not one little bit. Colored was Colored and that was that. No use worrying over it. Better to work at worrying over whether or not your buddy's got his head on straight and able to watch the couplings right, or if he's worried about home or his woman or the numbers he's played and lost big on again and what he's gonna say to the bookie who broke his finger last month and said, "I'm goin' lower next time, nigger — " Better to wonder if that same nigger's closed off that valve good as you would, and is standing there readin' the gauge pressure like his own mama's where you're at. Flat on your back in the mud, breathing turpentine, underneath a pipe labeled three ways in yellow on black: "Warning" and "Toxic" and "Danger." No use worrying about a union in the face of pressing matters that pressed on a body a helluva lot more. Canaan knew these things as good as Even did. Better to tell it as it happened. And so he did.

He told about the siren five minutes into break. How he knew before it quit its scream what had happened. How he knew it was Willie and James because James was horny for a woman he couldn't afford who was driving him crazier by the second. Knew Willie let him slide because he'd had one just like her a few years back and sweet was sweet, no matter the cost. Even knew these things and told them to Canaan. He finished by saying how once the air cleared in sub-level two, the crew had found them both thrown against a boiler in a heap — James still clutching his wrench, burned crisp by molten resin, and Willie splayed wide, his arms spread out like Christ, with no face.

"And that's why I'm an hour late home and shirtless." He finished the last of his Coke and set the bottle on its side, spinning it easy with his finger. He didn't tell Canaan how he couldn't help crying, Oh Jesus...Oh Jesus...Oh Jesus...while he picked up a sheet of skin that used to be a face and put it back on a bloody smear of a thing, or how he fought puking while he pulled off his old blue chambray and wrapped up the head before Willie's mama showed up looking for her only son and found him faceless.

The caution light at Center and Main blinked steady on and off in the middle of the empty intersection where most traveled through on a tractor or beat-up truck, but very seldom in a car. The Quarter — pronounced "niggertown" by the white folks — was still out of sight, still a mile beyond with his small house and others just like it lining red dirt streets named after flowers.

"I'm headed thataway — " Even nodded his head in a direction away from town.

"I'll be on directly. Been reading more about Arkansas and what's stirring there." Canaan tapped the newspaper, still folded in his lap.

"Well, you read then, while the light's easy, but I'm tired."

"I guess you are. After what you seen, you don't need an old man's predictions." Canaan picked up the paper and opened it to its center. Spinning the bottle one more time, Even patted his shoulder and stood up, stretching, meaning to head for home.

"When I was a boy, my daddy took me down to the train depot to see a dead whale." Canaan's low voice was behind him, feathery in the hot wind. "Cost him a quarter just so I could sit up on his shoulder and touch the side of that big ole ugly thing. Never seen so many people in all my life, all straining for a look at something big, dead and pitiful. Folks said it'd washed up in Gulfport and some bright boy thought of carting it up from Biloxi, in steamy summer, stinking to high heaven, just to make a buck or two. Gulls followed, too. Thousands and thousands of 'em. They covered the train cars in front and behind, turned 'em white and noisy. Flew over the crowd. Shit over most everbody. All those birds just sitting there staring. All I could think when I saw that whale and its tiny slitted eyes — barely open and blue-cloudy — was how ugly a thing it was for us to be standing underneath a broiling sun looking at a thing so pitiful. That's what I thought. Just seven, and I thought that. I remember thinking there weren't a tarp big enough to cover a thing of that size, but I sure wished there was." He crossed his legs and shook open the newspaper. "Shirts have been lost over lesser things, Even Grade — I'm sure sorry 'bout those two boys."

Even didn't answer, just raised his hand and waved as he walked underneath the yellow light blinking overhead. He found himself back on the sidewalk and moving past the barbershop and Owl Drug. Canaan's blood there, too. His blood pennies dribbled across half of Petal because some boy in a truck took good aim and hurled a Coke at a wobbly old Negro.

The Quarter was closer now, still not in sight, but closer. Breath came easier thinking of Bellrose Street — a strange name for a place not at all like a bell or a flower, but where his house sat with its faded front porch and the green metal chair. He passed Virginia Street with its tall trees, then on past Cedar Knot Avenue where a couple of kids were rolling a ball out into the street. By that point his neck was relaxed and in spite of things, he found himself humming.

A sea of curly dock grew wild along the clay road, standing in waist-high clusters. And though he'd never noticed the wildflowers before June, he'd met them since and been told more than once that their seeds, still white and hidden, would turn rust-colored once the weather cooled and the days shortened. He'd been told a tea could be brewed from boiling out the yellow root; a tea good enough to cure the stomach and the gums and certain cases of jaundice. He'd been told the leaves were fresher and better than the juice of a ripe lemon and that the seeds could be ground up as meal or coarse flour and baked up as bread. Thinking on it, he watched the curling leaves, caught up and moving in greenish blue waves. A month ago, the hedge was just one more patch of fast-growing green springing up wild on the side of a road he walked day in and day out. Now that patch had a name and a purpose and a deep-seated sermon. Judy had said to him sometime around the middle of June, "The language of 'dock' is patience — you remember that, Even Grade, next time you see it growin' alongside the road or in a wasted place." And while he hummed some nonsense song, he did remember and thought on the true patience of a man and what it might mean and put to sum all the other countless lessons such a woman with such a memory might equal. Stretching his neck, hearing it pop in all directions, he hummed louder, his hands swinging free.

Contrary within himself over his two-sided emotions — feeling such good, sweet relief his week's shift was over on one side, but sick to death over Willie and James on the other — he reached down and pulled off a dark green, wavy leaf and rubbed it between his hands. Waxed and cool, it felt soft and thin along its curl. Folding it up accordionlike, he put the length of it in his mouth and chewed, feeling it unfold and open against his teeth like something still living. He tasted a similarity to lemons and something deeper in that spoke of well-seasoned fish and lemon meringue pie and all those tart, clean foods of summer. Never knew patience could taste so good, was his thought as he saw his street coming at him just a hundred steps away. Knowing he'd turn in and see his porch with its single green metal chair. He liked to sit there at night, leaning back in study of the stars while his nearest neighbor, who was still back a ways reading yesterday's paper on the loading dock, yelled out his thoughts from the porch next door.

Under a hard noon sun the white water tower at the top of the hill had a way of looking like a stripped-down widow woman, all flaked-out and peeling, pale and ugly and sad, but with the sun falling and the sky near purple at the horizon, the tower seemed stately again, its weaknesses shored up and braced; covered over by the evening light. Spitting out patience to the side of his porch he climbed the steps with tired, aching feet, glad to see Saturday on its way, just behind tonight's moon now, with nothing marked down on that fresh page to do either, but whatever it was that happened to come to mind.

— I'm goin' Lo Lo to see Lo Lo, she so Lo Lo, she need Lo Lo...

At the beginning of August, Even Grade was still a happy man.

Copyright © 1999 by Melinda Haynes

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What People are saying about this

Connie May Fowler
Ambitious in both depth and scope, Mother of Pearl is a dazzling first novel. (Connie May Fowler is Author, Before Women Had Wings
Pat Conroy
A first novel of immense and staggering power. Something absolutely wonderful is going on here and it might be the surprise one feels encountering greatness.
Oprah Winfrey
It is an extraordinary read...Melinda Haynes is my catch of the year.

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