Julia (Mood) Peterkin

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John Chamberlain

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In "Bright Skin" Mrs. Peterkin has made an attempt to repeat the episodic pattern of "Black April," though on a diminished scale, and the book will suffer, perhaps unjustly, from the inevitable comparison with the earlier work. Yet for all the similarity of pattern, there is a difference in intention between the two books. "Black April" depended less upon intimate characterization than upon a mass effect; its hero, the gigantic plantation foreman, April, being of heroic proportions, was also of the heroic generality; and the background of hog-killings, duck hunts, dancing and cotton picking, against which April's generalized figure was projected, usurped the book and made it the work of enduring beauty that it is.

The present work, too, makes much of the background of the sea-island country of Carolina…. [This tends] to give the work the cyclic, episodic effect of "Black April." But there is more of an attempt at intimacy here; the heroic note has gone. And because the nature of Mrs. Peterkin's talent is what it is, the loss is genuine.

The truth is that Mrs. Peterkin's ability is not a dramatic ability; it is descriptive…. But in "Bright Skin" Mrs. Peterkin has attempted to reconcile her descriptive talent with an intimate record of the crises of young Blue, who grows up in what was once the Carolina rice country. Blue comes to manhood, marries Cricket, his "bright skin" cousin, under peculiar circumstances; is deserted by her; lives with another woman, attempts to get Cricket back, and ultimately lets her get a divorce so that she can live in Harlem with Man Jay. But we never feel that Blue has grown up; to the last, Mrs. Peterkin treats him as a boy, sentimentally….

In the early stages of the book, before Blue has definitely fallen in love with Cricket, the writing is easier, events drop into place with a sureness of touch, and the general atmosphere of the mixed Christian and pagan life of the Negro community is brought to a glowing life. As always, Mrs. Peterkin writes of the four seasons with a sensitivity that is a joy to read…. The easy morals of a community that is certainly not Christian in the Pauline sense are handled by Mrs. Peterkin with a delicacy that makes them the more natural to their setting; the Negroes simply do things a certain way, and that is all there is to it. It is only when Blue has let Cricket know that he wants her in spite of her being a contrarious "no-nation" girl (a mixture of black and white blood), that Mrs. Peterkin gets into deep water; then, forced to abandon the description, she becomes a secondhand writer, getting at problems of miscegenation, illegitimacy, migration from the South to Harlem, and so on, by what she has been led to believe, through looking on, is the way her people would act. Her real forte is a re-creation of natural beauty, passed through her own sensitive mind; it is too bad that she has seen fit to attempt a drama which she cannot wholly feel, or at least does not wholly communicate on paper.

John Chamberlain, "Mrs. Peterkin's New Novel of Negro Life," in The New York Times Book Review, April 10, 1932, p. 7.

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