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If "Scout" had been a klansman's daughter

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, July 5, 2010

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Chapel Hill, NC - Fifty years ago, Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mocking Bird" gave us a sympathetic hero who seemed to stand up against the worst features of our region's social system.

The story, narrated by his adoring daughter Scout, told us how Atticus Finch, the principled attorney, defended an unfairly accused African American. The book attacked the ugly racism of rednecks and the Klan. Its warm, finely crafted story engaged us and pushed us a gentle, positive step forward.

But it was a very small step.

It did not force us to confront the foundations of a system that relegated one race to a subservient role. The good, sometimes devoted, relationships, between servants and their superiors obscured the oppressiveness of the system.

Maybe we need another story to push us a little bit further in understanding and dealing with our history. What if Scout had been the daughter of a leader of the Klan instead of the child of a beloved, fair-minded lawyer? The small town South of the middle of the last century seen through the eyes of a Klansman's daughter might force us to take a larger step forward in confronting the real brutality of our former ways.

A new novel by UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Minrose Gwin gives us a chance to see our region through different eyes. Her book, "The Queen of Palmyra," takes us back to 1963 and a small southern town. Florence, the fictional narrator and central character, is an 11-year-old girl who spends most of her days in the company of and in the care of her grandmother's African American maid, Zenie.

While Zenie was telling young Florence stories of Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, Florence's father, Winburn Lafayette Forrest III, was telling her tales "about brave Christian men who, yes siree bobtail, fought to the death like true soldiers for little girls like me and beautiful and pure women like my mother."

During the days, Zenie brought Florence into her home in "Shake Rag," the black section of town.

Later, in the evenings Florence would bring to her father his beloved box of robe, hood, and other items, for his Klan meetings and "activities." And, once, her father proudly took her inside a Klan meeting where she wore her own specially made white robe. Other times, she would slip away with her mother to warn black friends about upcoming Klan activities.

When Florence fell behind in her schoolwork, Zenie's niece, Eva, was the only person who could teach Florence the English grammar she needed to catch up. But Eva's activities in organizing voter registration efforts made her a target of Win Forrest and his Klan brothers. The consequences of that conflict frame an awful tragedy that rips Florence away from her connection to Zenie, to her father and mother, and to her hometown.

In a new setting she will find relief from the racial conflict, subservience, and the confusion of her hometown and her father's racism. She will find her own freedom as she puts aside the shackles of her father's attitudes.

It is tempting to read "The Queen of Palmyra" as an allegory of the transformation of the Modern South and the benefit to whites from the destruction of the social system they fought so hard to preserve.

But Minrose Gwin does not preach. She is a gifted storyteller, careful wordsmith, and sensitive observer of personal interactions.

Her book would be compelling reading, even if it had no important underlying message.

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D.G. Martin is hosting his final season of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch/

 
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