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From the Hardcover edition.
Now I had graduated on this bright June Saturday in 1959 and few were the obstacles left between me and my getaway train to Miami--obstacles that nevertheless must be cunningly surmounted.
"Emma, you ride in front with Earl," said Mother, as expected. "I'll sit in back and reminisce a little more about my time here in Paradise."
"Oh?" challenged Earl. "What does that make the rest of your life, then, a comedown?"
"The rest of my life is still in progress," Mother lightly countered, making room for herself among my college leftovers that were going back to the mountains with them. "Ask me again in thirty or forty years."
We began the winding descent out of Chapel Hill as, seven years earlier, the three of us, with my mother's new husband at the wheel, had begun another descent into a new life. Only this time, they would be dropping me off within the hour at the Seaboard Station in Raleigh. My journey as part of this family unit would soon be at an end. Happily, my train to Miami left at one fifteen, so a farewell lunch had been out of the question, a circumstance diminishing that much further the chance of a last-minute blowup with Earl.
But still I was on my guard, for already he was making those engorged throat noises that preceded a sermon. I did not dare glance back at Mother for fear of catching her eye. An exchanged look of sympathy or, God forbid, a mutual smirk might still explode everything sky-high, as it had done plenty of times before. My job was to look respectfully attentive without rising to his bait. I folded my hands in my lap and faced front, focusing on the road ahead. Windows on both sides were open to let in the breeze, and the capricious little whomp-whomps of hot air provided a divertimento against Earl's opening sally and helped me keep my own counsel.
Sacrifices had been made. If I would ever stop to think about other people. Empathy and gratitude not my strong suits. Had never known what it was to apply myself on a daily basis. Hadn't been required of me. Had been raised to think that the world revolved around me and that I could coast along without making much of an effort. Not completely my fault. Had been indulged too much for my own good by teachers as well as family. But now I was going into the real world where I would have to knuckle under and deliver the goods like everybody else.
"Though why you should choose to go off half-cocked to a place like Miami remains a mystery to your mother and me. Your dean told us the Charlotte Observer wanted you, but he said you'd had your heart set on Miami ever since you went down for that interview at Christmas. I said, well, we were the last to know she went to Miami for Christmas. She told us she was staying in the dorm to catch up on her work. We didn't learn the truth till February."
Damn and blast you, I thought. You have a single conversation with my dean, who adores me, and you make me out a liar.
"I didn't want to say anything to anyone until I knew I had the job," I cautiously replied.
"I told the dean, she doesn't even know anybody in Miami--"
I don't know anybody in Charlotte, either, I refrained from saying.
"She knows Tess," put in Mother from the backseat. Tess was her old college roommate from Converse. "Tess will be meeting her train tomorrow morning."
"So why didn't she stay with Tess at Christmas, when she went down for that interview?" His voice had edged up a decibel.
"Well, I guess she wanted to stay with someone else at Christmas," Mother neutrally suggested.
Of course I had told them, after the fact, with whom I'd stayed. Or rather I had presented an acceptable configuration of the way in which this family I had worked for last summer had offered me hospitality. Not that any configuration of the Nightingales would ever be acceptable to Earl.
"Well, I guess there's just no accounting for some people's taste, but to move down there to be with that tribe . . ." Menacing pause before the refrain: "When her dean said the Charlotte Observer would have taken her."
The voice rolled on, but so, I congratulated myself, did the car. Every mile we achieved was one mile nearer to my release. We had not veered off the road or had a flat tire and nobody had backhanded me to start a black eye for my first day at work.
Think of it as a scene early in a novel, I told myself: The stepfather picks one last fight with the daughter who has not appreciated him. The mother in the backseat, wedged among her daughter's boxes, knees tucked under her like a college girl, is forgiving of the wild little breezes that mess up her hairdo because they mute his voice. There will be plenty more of it to listen to on their long drive back to the mountains. Whose novel was this going to be? Not the stepfather's; the writer might never grow the empathy for that one. Not the mother's, either, though it catches in the daughter's throat to see the youthful way the older woman is clasping her knees, wrapped in her own memories of Chapel Hill, when she still expected to get everything she wanted. If it was going to be the daughter's, there would be some choked-back sobs in the mother's embrace at the train station, one last stoic offering of the daughter's mouth for the imposition of the stepfather's kiss, and then they would be gone on the next page.
When, as a last-minute taunt, Earl, in the act of setting down my suitcases inside my roomette, asked if I thought I had "money to burn" for this exclusive little compartment with its own washroom and pull-down bed, I suppressed the perfect comeback that it was indeed a "burnt offering" of my graduation monies to thank the gods for my escape from him. At long last I had learned that it was never too late for a black eye when saying goodbye to certain people.
Alone in my luxury cubicle, I relaxed for the first time in months, allowing the train's diesel engine to take over the job of getting me to my destination. Woods pinked with afternoon June light alternated with tobacco fields and tin-roofed drying barns. As we shot through a dreary little hamlet, a character offered herself for my perusal: a girl born and raised in this flyblown place who had dreams of going somewhere and one day wakes up on her deathbed, a forgotten old maid who has never left town, and hears this very train hurtle by. She feels the diesel cry in the marrow of her bones and in her last conscious moment believes she is aboard. She savors all the sweetness of having gotten out, and she expires with a rapturous smile on her face for no one to see but the undertaker.
Could such a woman still exist in the late nineteen-fifties, even in rural North Carolina? Why not? Maybe I would write this existential pastorale with its O. Henry–ish ending in the evenings when I got home from my newspaper job. It was the sort of thing that might get me published in a literary quarterly, especially one of the Southern ones, which abounded in stories about trains passing and nothing much ever happening at home. My plan was to become a crack journalist in the daytime, building my worldly experience and gaining fluency through the practice of writing to meet deadlines. Then, in the evening and on weekends, I would slip across the border into fiction, searching for characters interesting and strong enough to live out my keenest questions. My journalism would support me until I became a famous novelist. Perhaps I would become a famous journalist on the side, if I could manage both.
I began to lower myself into the environs of the old maid's unlived life until I started feeling queasy. Despite my desperate desire to be published, I knew this was a warning signal to get out of there. Letting yourself be trapped in the wrong story was another way of succumbing to usurpation. Goodbye, old girl, someone else will have to tell your boring tale.
I took first call for the dining car and sat down to a spotless white tablecloth and a red rosebud in a silver vase. Perfect icons for my new beginning. Like an antidote to my ditched character back in the roomette, a smart, suntanned woman in an Army officer's uniform slowly materialized through the haze of my nearsightedness. Her gaze lit on me, she murmured something to the waiter, and the next thing I knew she was asking if she might join me.
"Please do." I heard myself switching into my well-brought-up mode, even though I had been counting on dining alone and savoring my getaway some more.
Her brass name tag read "Major E. J. Marjac." She introduced herself as Erna Marjac. When I said "Emma Gant," she remarked on the similarity of our first names, which would have annoyed me had she not had such a warm smile (and beautiful teeth in the bargain) and had she not looked so straightforwardly charmed by the prospect of having dinner with me. By the time she had ordered from the menu, without the usual female shilly-shallying, I knew I envied her self-command and I resolved to use this opportunity to further my development.
She asked where I was headed, and I said I was going to Miami to be a reporter on the Miami Star.
"Really? You seem so young. I thought you were a student."
"I was until noon today. I just graduated from the university at Chapel Hill."
She laughed, exposing the beautiful teeth again. "You aren't wasting any time, are you? We ought to celebrate. May I treat you to some wine, Emma?"
"Thank you, that would be nice."
Major Marjac signaled the waiter. "What would you like?"
"Oh, whatever you're ordering will be fine." Having grown up in beer-and-bourbon land, I hadn't a clue.
"Well, since we're both having red meat, a half bottle of this Côte du Rhône will go down well. If we'd chosen the chicken, I would have suggested the Blue Nun."
My first lesson in wines.
She told me she'd just completed a very successful recruiting tour and was heading for some R & R with a friend in Pensacola before reporting back to duty at Fort McClellan in Alabama.
"What do you do on a recruiting tour?"
"I show a film about the opportunities the Army offers to women today and then I have interviews the rest of the day. I'm very good at assessing character and signing up the best ones, but this time I broke my own record. Thirty-seven young women from fifteen states will be reporting for duty at Fort McClellan by the end of the month."
I might have been number thirty-eight, I thought, had I not had my hiring letter from the managing editor of the Miami Star tucked in my purse. But then, of course, I wouldn't have been on this train.
Major Marjac's character-assessing gaze gave me a stamp of approval. "You're fortunate, Emma, you started ahead of the game. But for many young women, we offer the only hope of independence."
Over wine and dinner she told me stuff about code breaking and weaponry, and about the physical ordeals the new recruits would undergo: gas chambers and such. I strained hard to retain everything in case I decided at some future point to write a story about a girl in her last year of high school, desperate to escape her circumstances: she passes this window with a sign, army recruiting women today, and inside is handsome Major Marjac with her welcoming smile.
When we said goodbye--she would be getting off at Jacksonville before dawn--the Major gave me her card.
"Slip this into your wallet, Emma. If things don't meet your expectations at the Star, drop me a line. With your college degree you could go straight into officers' training."
I asked the porter to make up my roomette for sleeping and was in bed before dark, swaying with the train's motion, mellow from Major Marjac's Côte du Rhône. When I was in my pajamas, I raised the shade again so I could get the maximum benefit from the experience, lying straight as a mummy in my little coffin-bed of rebirth, hurtling through one town after another where people steeped like old tea bags in their humdrum lives, speeding farther away by the minute from Earl-dom and all the other bottlenecks I had narrowly squeezed through.
It both gratified and goaded me that I had come across to an observant recruiter as one of those sleek, fortunate ones who "started ahead of the game." Wasn't that the image that I had cultivated? Yet, when so much lay hidden, I got no credit for my struggle, did I? When Major Marjac had proudly confided, "Weaponry is opening up to women in an unprecedented way," I couldn't help inventorying my own arsenal to date, the weapons best suited to my personality under duress: guile, subter-fuge, goal-oriented politeness, teeth-gritting staying power, and the ability, when necessary, to shut down my heart. Forces had been mobilizing inside me for the past eleven years to do battle with anything or anybody who might try to usurp me for their own purposes again.
"Usurp" had become my adversarial verb of choice ever since I had seized upon it from a History of Tudor England course to trounce my archenemy, the dean of women, in my Daily Tar Heel column. ("With her latest Victorian edict, Dean Carmody has, quite simply, usurped the rights of every Carolina coed.") After that column, perfect strangers would call out familiarly as I crossed the campus: "Hey, Emma! Any-body been usurping you lately?" I delighted in the powers of the Fourth Estate. My twice-weekly column, "Carolina Carousel," carried a mug shot of me with flying hair, cagey side glance, and my best don't-mess-with-me smirk.
And the more I meditated on it, the more the "usurp" word compounded in personal meanings. Not just kingdoms and crowns got usurped. A person's unique and untransferable self could, at any time, be diminished, annexed, or altogether extinguished by alien forces. My soon-to-be twenty-two years on this earth had been an obstacle course mined with potential or actual usurpers.
Since day one, it seemed, I had been confronted by them in one form or another.
Excerpted from Queen of the Underworld by Gail Godwin Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
1. On page 117, Emma thinks it is “utterly spellbinding” that she is actually standing by the gurney of this former madam, “the Queen of the Underworld,” she has been dying to meet. “How thankful I was that I’d headed straight for the hospital after the tornado. In a way, I realized, this amazing scene had been my creation.” What does Emma mean by this? Can you cite other examples in the novel of Emma’s resourcefulness?
2. This story takes place in 1959. Does the novel feel “historical” to you? How so? How not? How has the world changed since then?
3. Imagine Emma’s story if it were unfolding today. How would this different era affect her chances to realize her ambitions? Would she have the same chances? Better? Worse?
4. On page 59, when Emma is in the newspaper morgue reading the news clips about Ginevra Snow, she thinks, “In some strange way I felt she offered an alternative version of myself. To follow her story would be to glimpse what I might have done had I been trapped in Waycross in her circumstances.” Now go to page 335, where Emma again thinks of the Queen of the Underworld: “She was the worthy subject I had been waiting for, the opposite of the old maid who had died in her ﬂyblown hamlet as my train passed without ever setting off on her own adventure. . . . She was my sister adventurer, another unique and untransferable self who had been places I hadn’t and who had returned with just the sort of details I craved to imagine further.” What are some “alternative versions” of yourself ? Are there ﬁgures in your life, people you haveglimpsed–or known–who embody some aspect of what you don’t want to become (like Emma’s imagined old maid)? And what about people who make you question what you would be like if you had been brought up in their history? And what about people who “have been places” you haven’t and who “have returned with just the sort of details” you crave to imagine further?
5. Queen of the Underworld is dedicated “to the exiles, wherever you are now.” Do you think the author refers to the Cuban exiles Emma meets in the summer of 1959, or does she mean it in a broader sense? Have you ever been an exile? From your homeland? From a life you felt was rightfully yours? How did your speciﬁc form of exile change your life?
6. The word “usurp,” Emma tells us, has become her adversarial banner (page 9). She goes on to elaborate: “And the more I meditated on it, the more the ‘usurp’ word compounded in personal meanings. Not just kingdoms and crowns got usurped. A person’s unique and untransferable self could, at any time, be diminished, annexed, or altogether extinguished by alien forces.”What are your deﬁnitions of “usurpation”? What forms of it have you experienced?
7. Do you believe a person has a unique and untransferable self ? Or not? Discuss how Emma’s “story so far” might have been different if she had not believed in her unique and untransferable self.
8. Queen of the Underworld is a very populated book. How many of the characters can you recall? Which were your favorites? Which reminded you of someone you know–or of yourself? Which ones did you dislike? Which ones did you feel could have been left out? Which ones would you have liked to know more about?
9. Were there things about Emma that you disapproved of ? If she had been a male character, would you have felt the same?
10. Were you surprised or disappointed by Ginevra’s choices at the end of the book? Do you think Emma will ever write her novel inspired by “the Queen of the Underworld”? How might that novel be different from Ginevra Brown’s story?
Posted February 14, 2006
After reading 'A Mother and Two Daughters' and other Gail Godwin books, I felt as if I had been cut off in the middle of a chapter. Surely, this is not how the book should end! What on earth is she thinking? There is so much more to explore in the Miami-Cuban exile, the love affair with Paul, the work up to the top of the reporting lineage. We have been cheated. I liked Gail Godwin books for one reason - they were LONG! Lots of plots and character development. This one has neither.
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Posted February 5, 2006
I struggled through this book, hoping that each of the four parts would finally flesh out these interesting and intriguing characters. However, that was the basic problem with the novel - no character development. I kept thinking this was written like a script, and that good actors would somehow be able to convey the essence of the character they might be playing. Annoying too, were the repetitious letters to the protagaonist's family which simply recapped the story. The long passages in Spanish seemed to serve no purpose except to display the author's fluency in the language. And, the printing of the heroine's newspaper stories word for word made for quite a lot of skipping text. I've enjoyed Godwin's previous works, especially 'Father Melancholy's Daughter' but on this one, she seemed to be merely putting words on paper.
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Posted May 29, 2013
Not wirth the time or money!! I kept waiting for this book to move past the self-absorbed, jealous and arrogant main character. Emma seems to view life from only her perspective - what people can do for her or how they are out to get her. Sad!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 17, 2007
Emma was a sorry excuse for a women. She seemed clueless to her impact on others or to what was going on in the world around her. The sentences in this book were choppy and the dialogue didn't flow at all. The entire book felt like I was waiting for something to happen and it never did. The characters were very superficial.Not worth reading at all.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 1, 2007
This was my first Gail Godwin and probably my last. I could not warm up to Emma - for some reason, I found her arrogant with very little to redeem that impression. And I found Godwin's slant on history somewhat specious. Castro is hardly a heroic figure, but the fact is that many of the exiles that left Cuba at the time Castro took over were wealthy and corrupt, as was Battista. The charming exiles in the Julia Tuttle Hotel with their huge estates and business in Cuba were probably guilty of exploiting the Cuban poor and lower middle class. It made it difficult for me to sympathize with the exiles. But more unforgivable is that, as one other review said, the book just ends. I don't mind being challenged by a book and don't necessarily have to have all loose ends tied up, but I got the feeling that Ms. Godwin just got tired of writing.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 18, 2007
Emma Gant has a huge appetite for life! She's just graduated from college and landed a coveted job as a reporter at the Miami Star newspaper. Anxious to escape having to return to her stepfather's physical and sexual abuse, she's put plenty of energy into getting as far away from him as she can, albeit regretting the whole situation for her mother whom she dearly loves. But enthusiasm hardly prepares Emma for what she will meet in steaming, multicultural Miami. Yes, she's got an older lover there already but she's still unprepared for the cutthroat competition she will meet in the journalistic world. Starting out writing miniscule obit and hospital reports, she manages in the two weeks in which this novel takes place to discover the secrets behind the Miami Mafia, Cuban exiles shipping illegal arms as dental equipment back to Cuba during the time of Fidel Castro's rise to power, and the sad story behind an ex-Madam of a whorehouse. Although much that happens in the space of these two weeks, it's all pretty much covered on the surface without much development. But one must place one's self within the context of a woman working a new job in the man's world of the 1960s. Keeping that in mind, Emma's propulsion into all of this worldly activity certainly makes sense and makes for interesting reading. She's a gutsy character who rises from her losses prepared to tackle whatever challenges come her way. The only thing that doesn't make much sense is her falling for an older guy, given her negative background with her stepfather. Given the rapidly changing world of the 60's generation, though, Emma Gant (catch the literary parallels with Jane Austin and Thomas Wolfe's characters) certainly gets an education about rich Cuban exiles now floating in memories and little else, the 'Lucifer-like' world of journalism, but most of all dreaming big no matter what the world tosses one's way Interesting story that has plenty of zip in spots! Reviewed by Viviane Crystal on March 18, 2007Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
In 1959, having just graduated college and unable to stay under the domineering control of her parents, Emma Gant leaves North Carolina by train to start as a reporter at the Miami Star at a time when the southern city is a hot bed of Cuban exiles. Adding to her self imposed exile to southern Florida is her married lover Miami Beach nightclub owner Paul Nightingale lives there. --- In Miami she takes a room at the Julia Tuttle Hotel where Emma meets Cuban families who fled Castro¿s revolution. Life is exciting for Emma as she learns how to be a real journalist mentored by professionals at the Star and much about Cuba before and during the Castro conquest. Struggling with influences that pull at the young reporter, Emma meets a horde of people impacted by Castro¿s Communist revolution especially a non-journalist life mentor former madam Ginevra Brown, THE QUEEN OF THE UNDERWORLD. --- This is an interesting look at Miami at a time of turmoil that has turned the city and much of Southern Florida upside down. The support cast is solid and eccentric adding a touch of time and place to what the rookie reporter observes as everyday people do non-ordinary tasks. The heroine is also well drawn as more of an observer who has broken the prime directive of not getting involved in the story. However, the influx of sidebars like segments in Spanish and newspaper articles may augment the realism, but disrupts the flow of the story line though overall Gail Godwin provides a fine look at 1960s Miami. --- Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 11, 2006
I had been eagerly awaiting a new book by Gail Godwin. Her other novels grabbed you on the first page and didn't let go until the end. This novel was very disjointed, too much Spanish, too many newspaper articles and just ended with the turning of a page. I was tempted several times to just put the book down, but hope kept me going to an abrupt unfinished ending.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 20, 2006
I did not know if I could finish reading this book. So long and so empty... I wonder why the editor took the risk to publish. One funny detail: the character is a journalist who doesn't watch tv!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 8, 2006
Full of interesting characers, great insight into a fascinating time in Miami and a heroine who is witty, insightful and leads us through some fun and poignant stories. A delightful read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 2, 2009
While many recognize the name of actress Stephanie Zimbalist, few may know that she studied acting and singing at Julliard. This training stands her in good stead, whether she's appearing on stage, TV, in film, or reading audio books. Perhaps best known for her role of a smart, stylish sleuth on TV's Remington Steele opposite Pierce Brosnan, Zimbalist has a history of playing strong, intelligent women and she does it again in her narration of 'Queen of the Underworld.' The setting is Miami in 1959, the time of the Cuban Revolution. Emma Gant, a very recent graduate of the university at chapel Hill, has arrived after accepting a job as a reporter with the Miami Star (Not the Charlotte Observer, much to her step-father's dismay). She's convinced she's on her way up - she'll become a famous novelist and being a reporter will buy bread, butter and blouses until that time comes. Keeping her company during her ascent is Paul Nightingale, owner of a private club and her married lover. Peopling her new life are a gaggle of Cuban refugees as well as the comely woman of the title, a madam with a Mafia beau. As fans of Gail Godwin know one of her greatest attributes is characterization and she has a ball with the group she brings to 'Queen of the Underworld.' She has spun an engaging story (perhaps in part based on her years as a young journalist in Florida?). Stephanie Zimbalist is delicious as she eases from the Spanish speaking Cubans to the eyes-wide-open learning every minute Emma. Pure pleasure - enjoy! - Gail CookeWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 27, 2006
This is an interesting book which provides a background on Cuban citizens in Florida and depicts a young, self-involved woman testing her strength and attractiveness. I suspect Godwin has begun a retrospective look at her life, coupled as this book is with the publication of the first volume of her extremely detailed memoir (which may actually be of more interest to her fans.) I found this book disappointing since the main character does not have the depth of figures in her earlier works. That may well be the point, since who among us at a young age had any true depth?Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 19, 2008
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