Julia (Mood) Peterkin

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Herschel Brickell

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["Scarlet Sister Mary"] represents a very definite advance in the technical handling of rarely interesting material, without any sacrifice of the notable qualities of honesty, sincerity, sympathy, and keen observation that made "Black April" and "Green Thursday" landmarks of first importance in the south's current literary revival.

"Green Thursday," a collection of short stories, left behind it an impression of freshness; it sounded a new note in the handling of rich race material by a Southern author. The stories in the volume were wholly free from the several clichés that have attached themselves to the treatment of the negro in fiction. They had a primal vigor, a direct and at times shocking brutality, prompted, however, by nothing except the author's unmistakable desire to set down the life about her wholly and without mitigation….

"Black April," among its other striking qualities, showed Mrs. Peterkin's ability to create living characters, and at the same time to give them universality. It furnished, too, a picture of life on a remote Southern plantation that is the finest thing of its kind in American literature.

"Black April" suffered from overcrowding. Mrs. Peterkin was over-lavish with incident, with folk-lore, with characters. The book seemed to be born of an overpowering inner urge, and to have eluded the shaping power that would have given it more sharply realized form, made it a more admirable work of art. As in "Green Thursday" there was emphasis upon the physically disagreeable, which, while wholly honest on the part of Mrs. Peterkin, troubled a good many readers.

In "Scarlet Sister Mary" Mrs. Peterkin seems calmer and surer of herself. The book has a direct simplicity that is perfectly suited to the subject. It has, besides, the deeply felt and felicitously expressed beauty of the plantation that is its setting, an occasional loveliness of picture that is never tinged with artificiality. Mrs. Peterkin has sacrificed nothing of consequence to write more easily and more happily.

Mary is introduced to us as a slim and handsome girl of fifteen, well brought up, and good. She marries July…. When he leaves, Mary is broken-hearted. She grieves until at last the hard lesson is learned that no man is worth a drop of water from a woman's eye, and then she embarks upon the career that is to earn for her the characterization of Scarlet Sister….

Without straining in the least, Mrs. Peterkin has made a pagan figure of Mary with something closely akin to magnificence about her; a reincarnation of the Bona Dea, the Great Mother, whose worship has endured so long in the world because it is so profoundly and surely rooted in a fundamental human emotion. Mary thrives because she is able to realize to the fullest the physical completion of motherhood; she is not concerned with the moral scruples of the community, neither is she disturbed by economic difficulties….

Mrs. Peterkin has managed in "Scarlet Sister Mary" to keep the dialect at a minimum. What is left is skilfully handled, and there is sufficient to give the narrative the needed flavor. "Scarlet Sister Mary" should find an even wider audience than "Black April." It very firmly establishes its author as an interpreter of negro character; but more than this, it leaves no room for doubt that she is a novelist whose work has enduring quality.

Herschel Brickell, "Pagan Heroine," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. V, No. 15, November 3, 1928, p. 318.

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