ZORA & ME, THE CURSED GROUND AND THE POWER OF MEMORY

When Candlewick Press offered me a choice of upcoming titles to read I picked Zora & Me, The Cursed Ground. It was the cover that caught my attention. The children pictured were black and with the name Zora in the title, I correctly assumed the story involved Zora Neale Hurston, a Black writer whose stature has increased with each passing decade since her 1960 death and burial in a pauper’s grave. I knew little of Hurston’s youth and was more than eager to read Zora & Me, the Cursed Ground. Most of the books reviewed at Bookin’ with Sunny are aimed at adults, although I do try to cover those books for children that are so outstanding they should not be missed. Readers in the age range of 10 – 14 years old were targeted for Zora & Me.

Simon has written a fast-paced historical novel moving between pre-Civil War slavery (1855) at a Florida plantation known as Westin and the 1903 adventures of two twelve-year-old girls in the Florida town of Eatonville, established in 1877 as the first Black incorporated township in the United States. The prologue lays the groundwork for this fascinating novel. The book is about memory, the “ordinary kind, rooted in things that happened, people you knew.” But it is also about another kind of memory, the memory “rooted in the things you live with, the land you live on, the history of where you belong.” This second memory is often most important.

The story begins one night in a bedroom shared by Zora and her friend Carrie when they are awakened by the sound of runaway horses belonging to a Mr. Polk. Zora wants a very hesitant Carrie to come with her in the middle of the night to tell Mr. Polk about his horses. “Carrie, you sitting at the feast of knowledge, but you don’t want to eat. Now, I want to pull up a chair and have a heaping plate – only I don’t like to eat alone.” The author has masterfully imagined the young Hurston’s voice, based on her stories, at the same time contrasting it with Carrie’s much more measured, balanced speech, “Unfortunately, Zora had caught the split second of my ambivalence and used it as a shortcut across the field of my will to the junction of our compromise.” Based on what I had read by page ten, I knew this book was something special.

When the girls reach Mr. Polk, an elderly man who does not speak, they find him beaten and bloody in front of his one-room cabin which had been set on fire. The girls smother the fire and help the old man back into his cabin. At that moment, “Old Lady Bronson,” the “town conjure woman” appears in the doorway. She immediately begins to give orders to Carrie and Zora to assist her in tending to the old man, a man she apparently knows well. Both silent Mr. Polk and mysterious Old Lady Bronson are key figures in Carrie’s tale about the events that take place in Eatonville in 1903.

The story which runs in and out of Carrie’s Eatonville tale begins on an unidentified Caribbean island. A Spanish widower, his daughter Prisca, and his young black ward Lucia board a ship bound for St. Augustine, Florida, where the man will marry and live on a plantation called Westin. Neither Prisca nor Lucia are prepared for what awaits them in Florida. Lucia is no longer Prisca’s dearest friend and companion; she is now the slave of Prisca’s father and his new wife. The world of slavery is a deadly wedge between the girls and Lucia’s only comfort is the memory of a Caribbean woman who worked for Prisca’s father and cared for Lucia when her she was orphaned. Like Old Lady Bronson in Carrie’s 1905 story, the woman who worked for the widower and raised Lucia was a conjurer and healer. Her last words to Lucia before the ship sailed were “always remember.” The reader, too, will be remembering more and more as the two stories draw closer and closer. It is mystery and memory.

Hurston would be proud of Simon’s imaginative retelling of her youth. I can’t imagine any young reader between ten and fourteen years of age (the marketing target) not being captivated by the events and characters in this novel. Boys and girls will find both the honest tackling of slavery’s effects on kids their own ages and the mystery of Eatonville’s oldest citizens, Mr. Polk and Old Lady Bronson, irresistible.

Zora & Me is not just a young reader’s book. The existence of Eatonville sent me Googling its history, and from there I remembered another book, A Stronger Kinship by Anna-Lisa Cox. It is the story about not an all-black city, but a very early integrated city, Covert Michigan. It is the story of people who believed the hatred and fear of blacks did not have to dominate their lives. And that thought brought me to wondering again how the white South’s deeply embedded hatred and fear of black Americans could, even after the Civil War and into the twenty-first century be so pervasive. That question led me to Garry Will’s book “Negro President” Jefferson and the Slave Power and the Three-fifths Clause of our beloved U. S. Constitution. The curious reader in me was now on a roll.

And the stories of those slaves who so valued their independence that they would risk everything to be free? Another book on my shelf was  The Long Walk to Freedom, Runaway Slave Narratives, by Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise. Finally, back to Zora Neal Hurston and her books. I had forgotten I had a copy of  I Love Myself When I am Laughing, A Zora Neal Hurston Reader, edited by Alice Walker. It was exactly what I need to revisit Eatonville in Zora’s own words.

By my standards, targeting readers between ten and fourteen is short-sighted. I cannot see any reader who enjoys good stories and excellent writing passing up Simon’s Zora & Me, the Cursed Ground, regardless of age. Back in my bookselling days, I would encourage parents to read the books their kids were reading. Not to make sure the kids were reading something they, the parents, might disapprove of–after all, kids are almost obliged to read what we’d rather they did not–but to dive into the stories on required reading lists. I would also remind parents that if they had sit-down family dinners, engaging their offspring to talk about books is one of our most important tasks as parents.

My advice regarding Simon’s book is this: don’t wait for your child or grandchild or niece or nephew to have to read this book. Buy it and read it yourself and then, if you can bear to let it go, give it to them to read before it’s found on their reading list.   –   Sunny Solomon  

Also available by T. R. Simon: Zora & Me (First in Series and co-authored with Victoria Bond).

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