Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Promise - TLC Book Review

Promise by Minrose Gwin

• Hardcover: 400 pages
• Publisher: William Morrow (February 27, 2018)

The Publisher's Summary
*highlighted in red are the tidbits that piqued my interest in reading Promise*

In the aftermath of a devastating tornado that rips through the town of Tupelo, Mississippi, at the height of the Great Depression, two women worlds apart—one black, one white; one a great-grandmother, the other a teenager—fight for their families’ survival in this lyrical and powerful novel
A few minutes after 9 p.m. on Palm Sunday, April 5, 1936, a massive funnel cloud flashing a giant fireball and roaring like a runaway train careened into the thriving cotton-mill town of Tupelo, Mississippi, killing more than 200 people, not counting an unknown number of black citizens, one-third of Tupelo’s population, who were not included in the official casualty figures.
When the tornado hits, Dovey, a local laundress, is flung by the terrifying winds into a nearby lake. Bruised and nearly drowned, she makes her way across Tupelo to find her small family—her hardworking husband, Virgil, her clever sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Dreama, and Promise, Dreama’s beautiful light-skinned three-month-old son.
Slowly navigating the broken streets of Tupelo, Dovey stops at the house of the despised McNabb family. Inside, she discovers that the tornado has spared no one, including Jo, the McNabbs’ dutiful teenage daughter, who has suffered a terrible head wound. When Jo later discovers a baby in the wreckage, she is certain that she’s found her baby brother, Tommy, and vows to protect him.
During the harrowing hours and days of the chaos that follows, Jo and Dovey will struggle to navigate a landscape of disaster and to battle both the demons and the history that link and haunt them. Drawing on historical events, Minrose Gwin beautifully imagines natural and human destruction in the deep South of the 1930s through the experiences of two remarkable women whose lives are indelibly connected by forces beyond their control. A story of loss, hope, despair, grit, courage, and race, Promise reminds us of the transformative power and promise that come from confronting our most troubled relations with one another.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble


My home state drives me crazy sometimes...but it's mine.  
It's home. 
Anything that involves Mississippi, especially stories with Mississippi as the setting are almost guilty pleasures for me.  I'm going to respond predictably most of the time.
Unless, of course, the book is done poorly.
I didn't have to worry about that in the case of Promise.

First Impressions - Chapter 1

I'm hooked.
I'm a white woman.  Dovey is not.
To hear her voice, just the first part of it and her story, pretty much committed me.
I'm not a fan of the white woman saving the black woman narrative, but at this point, I don't think that is what is going to happen.
The descriptions are surreal, from the environment to the arrival of the tornado itself, the aftermath (the horse), the people, their words, their lives...

Golden Lines 
(seriously, I could post 50+ Golden Lines for Promise)

Now she felt the old rumble in her throat, something between a growl and a song that came from a low place, calling back to the train, saying she was sad, sad, she wanted her brother and sisters back. (7)

The wind shrieked through the house, knocking a china cabinet on its side, dishes clattering and breaking.  It slammed the dining room table up against the wall, shattering the plaster.  It tore the front door off its hinges and sent it flying onto the front porch and out into the darkness beyond.  There was a popping noise as the nails from the boards in the woodwork shot across the room like bullets. (55)

Old storm, you ain't got me yet. (56)

Dead white folks good for something. (59)

Old storm, you get ahold of that Devil?  That why you come to town? (72)

The McNabb place was in pieces.  She couldn't say she was sorry. (99)

Dovey spotted a scarf and pulled it down and wrapped it around her neck, then thought the better of taking white folks' clothes without permission.  Who knew what some Miss Lady might accuse her of? (139)

The woman's neck had been twisted into an unnatural angle, sideways and peeled back, white and tender as a radish, not forward and down and burnt black, the way the merman's had been. (144)

A piece of her covering had crept over one side of her face, and all the laundry of the past fifty years, all the laundry in her tally books once so neatly stacked and now cast to the four corners of the earth, came tumbling down on her, heavy and slick and gray with white folks' dirt.  (200)

Hello, foot.  Is that you?
I'm here, old woman. (232)

"The paper's running lists of the deceased, but only the white folks.  Ain't bothering to count our people." (234)

When Dovey found the gun, loaded, propped up out in the shed behind the house, she stormed back into the house and woke Virgil from a dead sleep to ask if he could tolerate being strung up on a tree for shooting the Devil, if he thought that might improve Dreama's mood. (284)

My Perspective

Not only was I born and raised in Mississippi, my husband and I lived the first 3 years of our marriage in Itawamba County, just 20 or so miles from the setting of Promise
Our first baby, a Chow Chow named Honey, was born in Iuka, another place mentioned in the novel.
I've visited Reed's Dept. Store many more times than I could count.
My mom worked at People's Bank.
My husband's family STILL lives in Meridian.
etc. etc. etc.

Tornados...we've lived through a few.  Thankfully, we've never had our own home destroyed, but the tornado of 1936 wasn't and still isn't a rare event.
Tornado season is, in fact, a southern season...integrated within Winter, Spring, and Summer, followed by Hurricane season...yeesh.
We watch the afternoon sky and The Weather Channel carefully.

The setting of Promise was my home...but not my experience...not my story.
The Tupelo of 1936 was not the Tupelo where I lived.
I struggle with words to describe the feelings I have as I read my homeland's history.
I don't seem to be able to describe my thoughts here well at all...every time I try, I end up deleting.
I'm thankful for Minrose Gwin's words.
I'm not a re-reader, but I could re-read hers.

Characters and Details That Will Stay with Me


Dovey (laundress),
Dreama (Charlsetta's daughter, raped by Son),
Promise (Dreama's light skinned son by Son),
Virgil (millworker, Dovey's husband),
Charlsetta (Virgil and Dovey's daughter, died in New Orleans),

Son - the Devil
Mort McNabb (the "good" father),
Alice (high school English teacher),
Tommy (McNabb's 3rd child, after whose birth, Alice struggled with depression),
Etherene - Thursday nights

Miss Edwina - piano teacher, her dog Major - Major knew Jo was in trouble.

Snowball the cat and her kittens - throughout the story, cats and kittens play a huge role, literal and figurative

Glendola Harris - trained as a nurse and returned to help "her people"

the coat hanger - Jo and Son

Jo's "Words to Keep" notebook with her mother

Jo and Dreama's rapes
the tornado victims' injuries
what Dovey and her father saw in the woods - the merman
Son's friends in the house after the storm

"Tommy" in the Crepe Myrtle

Alice's substitute hanging from the tree

The Trick

One of my favorite aspects of Dovey was her spirit...her assertiveness...She and Dreama both seem to represent a new generation of women finding their voices...more than likely they wouldn't find their voices in their lifetimes, but they would set the stage for many young women to come.

trains loading wounded, shipping them to Memphis, unloading and coming back for more

Jo - her smarts, her Campfire Girls knowledge, particularly her medical skills

the imagery...thoughts, feelings became real - hot irons, monsters, birds, winged and taloned creatures, scurrying creatures, the voices, the dreams...I read these portions over and over.

The realization that life wasn't at all what you thought it was all along.

The realization that in order to be saved, you have to be able and willing to save yourself...Glendola, Dreama, Dovey, and Jo

The Ending

The Google Factor (I'm a nerd)

F5 tornado, Tupelo, MS, April 5, 1936

Shake Rag, MS

***there is a shocking set of photos included in the back of the book as well.

Holly Springs - Rust College - Ida B. Wells


Charleston to frontier Mississippi
servants walked with chains
Chickasaws - cleared out of the state for settlement

President Roosevelt's CCC - Civilian Conservation Corps

the shortage of pine coffins

Red Cross - 1936

hospital at the Lyric Theatre - separate places and areas within those places for "whites" and "coloreds"

boxcars assigned to the newly homeless

Heroines of Jericho

What Next?

Promise is a keeper.
I've already added The Queen of Palmyra and Wishing for Snow to my Goodreads list.
How the heck did I miss Minrose Gwin????

The Author

Minrose Gwin is the author of The Queen of Palmyra. She has written three scholarly books, coedited The Literature of the American South, and teaches contemporary fiction at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill.
Find out more about Minrose at her website.

Other Stops on the Tour

Tuesday, February 27th: No More Grumpy Bookseller

Wednesday, February 28th: The Sketchy Reader
Thursday, March 1st: Readaholic Zone
Monday, March 5th: Lit.Wit.Wine.Dine.
Tuesday, March 6th: Tina Says…
Wednesday, March 7th: Peppermint PhD
Thursday, March 8th: Instagram: @_literary_dreamer_
Monday, March 12th: Literary Lindsey
Tuesday, March 13th: Into the Hall of Books
Wednesday, March 14th: Broken Teepee

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