Julia (Mood) Peterkin

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Robert Herrick

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"Black April" was a remarkable book, possibly the most convincing presentation of the Negro that has yet been made by a white person. More than that, it was a considerable work of art. With a mastery of dialect and folk-lore unequalled and with a pervasive sense of the plantation background from which the black figures emerged, Mrs. Peterkin so completely dramatized all her material that it was almost impossible to tell whether the writer was an alien observer or a Negro become wholly conscious and expressive. That sense of strangeness of the looker-on, which the most sympathetic treatment of the Negro by the white has always betrayed, as if the "superior" were trying in vain to comprehend the "inferior" across the racial barrier, was never once present. In "Black April" Mrs. Peterkin did not explain or exploit: she created the black world in its own terms….

In this second book, "Scarlet Sister Mary," Mrs. Peterkin has failed, at least in the first part, to merge herself fully with her material. These introductory chapters are told as the white observer might see them, descriptively, and not especially well told: the story wanders, scatters. Rich as is the background and firmly drawn as are the few characters, the story does not move of itself and sweep the reader at once into its own atmosphere, as did "Black April." This failure to dramatize becomes less apparent as the story passes from the girl's to the woman's life of Si May-e. Something of the inevitability which made "Black April" such a remarkable first novel takes the place of the earlier fumbling. The profound change in Si May-e's character wrought by July's abandonment is told rather than presented: it seems more due to the author's wilful desire than to the black woman's own nature, as does her triumphant rejection of the returned husband. Nevertheless, Si May-e holds firmly together as a human being and comes into her own, with a brood of a dozen children, more or less, no two of them being by the same father. In her fecundity, kindness, health and happiness, as well as in her indifference to social stigma, she embodies many essential qualities of all strong women, more frankly because more primitively than would be possible for her sophisticated white sisters. (p. 172)

There is more concentration upon the one character in "Scarlet Sister Mary" than in "Black April," less crowding of folk material, and an even richer atmosphere of the plantation…. And yet this second book, like the first, remains less a story than a series of pictures…. There are so many of these, they are so rich in atmosphere and so true in detail, that the book becomes something more than a novel—the revelation of a race, which has lived with the whites for hundreds of years, without becoming known beneath the skin. One feels that Mrs. Peterkin has much more to reveal, and to create. (pp. 172-73)

Robert Herrick, "A Study in Black," in The New Republic, Vol. LVII, No. 734, December 26, 1928, pp. 172-73.

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