The Queen of Palmyra takes place in 1963 in small-town Millwood, Mississippi. The story is told through the eyes of 11 year old Florence Forrest, the daughter of Win, a down on his luck burial insurance salesman and Martha, the neighborhood "cake lady" who has a taste for bootlegged booze. Like the rest of the south during the turbulent 60's, Millwood is a town racked with racial tension and the white population doesn't mix with the blacks in the "Shake Rag" section of town - except when the residents of Shake Rag come to their homes to cook, clean and care for their children.
It is through Florence's innocent and sometimes bewildered eyes that the reader sees the events of the summer of 1963 unfold -from the mysterious box that her dad has her carry up from the basement before he leaves for evening "meetings", her wild nighttime rides into Shake Rag with her mother on bootleg runs, to the save haven of her grandmother's house and the reluctant, yet strangely comforting presence of her grandmother's black maid, Zenie - Florence slowly begins to piece together the truth of what is happening within her town and within her own family.
It is also during the course of that fateful summer that Florence witnesses the implosion of her parents marriage and the increasing unease and violence between the black and white residents of tiny Millwood. An unease she does not understand and a violence she can not comprehend.
Minrose Gwin does an amazing job of evoking the atmosphere of a small, middle class town during the early 1960's. Florence's voice is at once innocent and wise and Gwin has done a great job telling the story through the eyes of an innocent and idealistic 11 year old. It is hard not to make comparisons between Florence and Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. Another comparison that comes to mind immediately upon starting to read The Queen of Palmyra is to Kathryn Stockett's fabulous book The Help. Both stories take place in the same general time and place, but The Queen of Palmyra is a grittier story. It is told from the point of view, not of a privileged young woman who is expected to marry and continue the racial segregation in her own home (as in The Help), but from the eyes of a less privileged and neglected child whose parents are more intimately involved in the lives of residents of the black community. It's a similar story told through a different, more raw, lens. The Queen of Palmyra is a book well worth reading and would be a great choice for a book club.
I would give The Queen of Palmyra 4 STARS - I really liked it.