Julia (Mood) Peterkin

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John R. Chamberlain

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["Scarlet Sister Mary"] all but cries with color, scent, sound. It has the rich fragrance of a hot candied yam. Mrs. Peterkin rings all the changes of season and weather to build up the world of Scarlet Sister Mary, and she does it in a style that is a happy combination of solidity, brilliance and pure beauty. Sometimes her story sags with too much beauty, but to err in that manner is superhuman and quite easily forgiven.

So real, so arresting to the five senses, is the sub-tropical world of the Blue Brook plantation—a fruitful sector in the sea-island country of the South Carolina lowlands—that Mary's lusty, fertile habit of taking up with any man who suits her fancy seems native to a place where "the earth's richness and the sun's warmth make living an easy thing." This black incarnation of the goddess of fertility is jilted by her lawful husband [July], but she remains even-up with life by filling her house with children, the only two of which by the same man happen to be twins.

As was the case in "Black April," this book is crammed with the doings and superstitions of the Gullah folk…. Here, in her second novel, Mrs. Peterkin relates everything to the central character; she has made her story more intense by a process of narrowing down.

Mary's character is simple and elemental. It takes color from the world about her….

What impresses one about Mary is her direct whole-heartedness. If July hadn't been conjured by another woman, Mary would have remained a faithful wife all her black life….

There are two occasions upon which "Scarlet Sister Mary" seems to verge upon the factitiousness of farce. One is when Unexpected [Mary's first child], true to his name, returns from up north, carrying a child in his arms. "Whoa," the reader is inclined to say, "this is too much." The second comes when July marches home from the outland after some twenty years. Mary shakes with an inward desire to take him in again, but she steels herself to dismiss the wretch. It is only when July glimpses eight illegitimate children that he is willing to give up and say farewell. These two touches make an otherwise sound book seem untrue for the moment.

John R. Chamberlain, "Julia Peterkin Writes Again of the Gullah Negroes," in The New York Times Book Review, October 21, 1928, p. 4.

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