Mother of Pearl

Mother of Pearl

3.6 36
by Melinda Haynes

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Set in a small Mississippi town in the late 1950s, Mother of Pearl is populated by original characters with themes of identity and the true meaning of family interwoven throughout. The story revolves around twenty-eight-year-old Even Grade, a black man who grew up an orphan, and Valuable Korner, a fifteen-year-old white girl who is the daughter of the town…  See more details below


Set in a small Mississippi town in the late 1950s, Mother of Pearl is populated by original characters with themes of identity and the true meaning of family interwoven throughout. The story revolves around twenty-eight-year-old Even Grade, a black man who grew up an orphan, and Valuable Korner, a fifteen-year-old white girl who is the daughter of the town whore and an unknown father. Their paths cross through Joody Two Sun, a seer, who sets up camp along the riverbank just outside of town and becomes Even's lover. Both Even and Valuable are seeking the family, love, and commitment they never had, and their search ultimately takes both of them to places they never dreamed they'd go.

Editorial Reviews
Set in the Deep South in the late 1950s, Mother of Pearl vividly brings to life the extraordinary inhabitants of the small town of Petal, Mississippi. Central to the novel are the stories of Even Grade, a 28-year-old black man abandoned by his mother at birth, Valuable Korner, a 15-year-old white girl whose family history holds a trunkful of damning secrets, and Joody Two Sun, an enigmatic obeah woman who sees into the hearts and minds of the townsfolk from her riverside camp on the outskirts of town. Cast in a tragicomic passion play, Even, Val, and Joody find their destinies entwined as they search for the love and family that they have always been denied.

Product Details

Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.50(d)

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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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Mother of Pearl 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 36 reviews.
kellisat More than 1 year ago
This book was recommended to me by my sister so I read it. I like the ending, but the rest is very wierd. There were several times when I put it down because I was frustrated at the wierdness. I just don't think some of the things that the characters do are realistic. I did finish it and like I said the end is very touching.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Like most, I started reading the book and couldn't get past the description of a man walking a bridge. it was so boring. Two mins. into the book I put it down and didn't even consider reading it until i had nothing else to read. I enjoyed this book. The characters were amazing and well constructed and the whole southern soul of it had me hooked like no other book with this kinda context. I enjoyed it. !
Guest More than 1 year ago
I started reading this book expecting to put it down after a few chapters and never touch it again. The description on the back of the book didn't really appeal to me. Twenty pages into it and I was hooked. This author is highly talented. She gave so much depth to the characters and she intricately wove the story of their lives together. This book has spirit and excitement unlike any other book I've ever read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This one was fun. Left me with questions but that is ok. I loved the characters and their names too. Sad, funny, and uplifting also.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Born and raised in Alabama, I found that Melinda Haynes' vivid description of southern life to be strikingly true to reality. The southern connection made it all the more special to me. I loved the book, however, (and I know some may disagree with me) I wish it was longer! I would love to know more of Valuable's family history, more about what shaped Neva into the woman she is during these events, and especially what happened to Jackson! I'd also have loved to see Pearl grown up too. Melinda Haynes' writing is so compelling, that I felt as though these characters were not only life-like, but also as if they were my blood relatives. I wept and rejoiced for them. And as with my own kin, I would love to see how things turned out for everyone else. Very tragic and touching, this book is not only a stellar pick from Oprah's list but also is sure to be studied in colleges, especially here in the southeast.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I took this book on my honeymoon, which probably wasn't the best idea because I couldn't put it down! This is definitely not the kind of book you should buy if you want mindless, easy reading (see 'Bridget Jones' Diary'). This one is very involved and turns and keeps you wanting more.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A book that seems quite boring at first but, by chapter 6 it becomes hard to put down. a story of two people who happen to meet under just the right circumstances. They seemed have so littel in common, but in reality they so much have in common. The story of Val and Even's lives make you feel for them. Both were abondened by their mothers, had to learn to trust, and had to learn that the human spirit is a wonderful thing. All the time that they are trying to stay inside their shells they are being forced out by those around them. The supporting characters are superb and only add depth to the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel was very slow in the beginning. It took some time to get into it, but once I did I enjoyed it. I liked most of the characters, and the storylines. It was not the best book, but it was far from the worst.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read many books from the Oprah book club and this is one of the most enjoyable!! The writing is descriptive and the text pulls you into the characters' world with interest and the desire to continue reading!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I didn't really like this book. I read 200 pages so far...and I am like...Get to the point. I am expecting something great to happen...and nothing happens. I am still stuck on page 200. so far...a crippled white woman dies...a kid runs away. It is hard to follow.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I tried, I really did, to 'get into' this story, but between the language and the inability to follow all the characters, I could not finish it.I am an avid reader, reading a book a week or more, but this was one I just could not get through.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is my second attempt to read this book. It took getting to the middle to understand what was going on and I am still not sure. It definitely was not one of my favorites. But it was okay.
Guest More than 1 year ago
However, I couldn't read the whole thing. I didn't understand some of the language. It was very confusing (as far as characters go) and as much as I love reading, especially Oprah's picks, I did not get through this one. I even bought the hard-cover version, despite the cost, but did not like anything about this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Chanel5Girl More than 1 year ago
Melinda Haynes has done a terrible job clarifying her characters. Like reviewers I have made it to 200 pages and I usually read a bad book just so I can feel a sense of achievement. Her book sucks. The beginning was good until sjhe in cludes Juleb. He from nowhere and has sprung from some place Haymes doesn't explain. Usually Oprah picks are dead on, but what in the name of God what was she thinking. Where is the story line, there is no story line just a bunch of characters living a boring life. I'll like a fool will try again to finish but I do not see wht others saw in this novel. Clearly taste is lacking. What is the book about? It better make sense in the end because this is the worst Oprah book yet, let alone the worst book I've ever read!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Initially, I tried to read this book on a few occasions, but got too tangled up in the wordy descriptions and quit before I got to the 2nd chapter. Patience paid off. Desperate for a good read, I made another attempt to get through this book and was glad I did! That which turned me off in the beginning turned out to be the very riches in this book. It is worth the trip through. I passed it on to a good friend to read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
An intelligent book, but way, way too long. I do love long, interesting books that you want to stay with the characters after the book ends. But this book is not good enough. It drags in most places. I liked the characters, the writing was good, but the plot just wasn't exciting enough to sustain you for the length of the book. A miss for Oprah's book club.
Guest More than 1 year ago
There is nothing new about recycled character types and plots; it is a time honored device. Authors borrow shamelessly and we often love the old favorites, so that may be easily forgiven. Hurston blazed the trail long ago that Mother of Pearl wanders down. However, Zora Neale was fine wine and this is everyday chablis. Haynes' technique of creating dark, convoluted and suspenseful foreshadowing leading nowhere left this reader hard pressed to care when something finally did pan out. Besides the anti-climatic foreshadowing, the flow of the story was also interrupted by a plethora of made-up, nonsensical and often inane metaphors and similes. 'Canaan's school of thought is different now, settled to the forefront of his reasoning like bottle-birthed blood' p. 309. WHAT??? Aside from the fact that I have always thought that one could ascribe to a school of thought or contribute to one, but didn't know one could have a school all to oneself, what on earth is 'bottle-birthed'? Birthed from a bottle? This leads us to the characters who seem not to have been birthed at all, but rather like paper dolls. The black characters, while more fleshed out than the white are also somewhat stereotyped - mystical, super-sexed,earthy wise (in contrast to the inbred whites) and even visionary. Unfortunately, that sixth sense, while hammered at repeatedly, takes a vacation at a very inopportune time. All this said, I persevered and did find the book mildly entertaining, but much less so than the hype.
Guest More than 1 year ago
An excellent book, very touching and realistic. Haynes does a wonderful job yet again. However, I feel that the younger aduience should not read this book. It's content is more for adults. But truly a wonderfully written novel.