4 out of 4 stars
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Noonday Flower by Carla C. Ohse is a novel that touches the heart and teaches of love, freedom, and equality. It is the story of two strong women, mother and daughter, who defy the odds and struggle to survive in a world full of ignorance and racial prejudice. A feminist manifesto written in a postmodernist fashion, the novel also delivers a meaningful message on the importance of education and the beauty of selfless love.
In the early 1930s, a young black woman called Marla Jean finds refuge in the all-white village of Walhalla, Michigan. Although she becomes the source of local gossip, she works hard to earn her living and dreams of a better future for her unborn child. When she gives birth to a beautiful girl, she names her Noonday after the time of the day when she was born. Like her mother, Noonday Flower has to fight her way through life’s trials and tribulations. Denied the right to join the other kids at the village school, she curiously watches them during their recesses and becomes friends with one of the students, Robert “Bookie” Brenner. Teacher Maggie Dunn recognizes the huge potential of both children and starts giving them private tutoring lessons. Her decision will change their future in unexpected ways.
The novel pulls you in from the opening pages with the highly emotional description of Noonday’s birth. From that moment on, the story moves backwards to recount Marla Jean’s life journey, but also forward to follow her daughter’s extraordinary achievements. In a skillfully designed intertextual dialogue, each of the twenty chapters is preceded by lyrics belonging to famous poets like William Cullent Bryant, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Frost, or Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The author’s own lyrical lines and bits of wisdom accompany the aforementioned poetical excerpts for a better understanding of the coming chapter.
Maggie Dunn, the first-person narrator, confesses that she has gradually pieced Marla Jean’s story together, either from the testimonies of the local people or the careful analysis of official documents. Despite her efforts to dig out the truth, she often admits to the unreliability of her sources: “Sometimes the stories would get told so many times that, by the time they got around to everybody in Walhalla, the truth got lost in the telling.” (loc. 1331) Even when she is a first-hand witness to the events, like in Noonday’s case, she is still not a narrator to be fully trusted. For example, she fails to recognize the signs of blossoming love between Noonday and Bookie. However, I liked her strength of character and her determination to protect Noonday and help her enroll in school.
One thing I particularly enjoyed about Carla C. Ohse’s novel is the accuracy of the historical details. The book brilliantly parallels two incredibly different settings, the small village of Walhalla and Idlewild, the best black resort in the Midwest in the 1920s. Whereas Walhalla is an all-white community whose members stubbornly hold on to racism and segregation, Idlewild starts as an escape from bigotry and successfully turns into a “black Eden,” “a Mecca for top-name black entertainment.” (loc. 371) During the time she spends working for the famous Flamingo Club in Idlewild, Marla Jean has the opportunity to witness the performance of great artists like Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Etta James; she meets Joe Louis, the prizefighter, and sees Sammy Davis Jr., the tap dancer. By the time Noonday herself discovers Idlewild, the town is at the peak of its glory. The author does an amazing job in describing the effervescence of a flourishing independent black community priding itself with visits from Aretha Franklin, Nat King Cole, and Stevie Wonder.
The characters are multidimensional and realistically portrayed. On the whole, they reflect both the strengths and weaknesses of human nature. They made me pass through a variety of emotions, from disappointment with Johnny’s cowardice and outrage against J.D.’s cruel actions to respect and admiration for Maggie’s perseverance and Bookie’s devotion. As a hopeless romantic, I got lost in the chapters describing Noonday and Bookie’s growing love for each other. Since theirs was an impossible love story, I could not wait to read one more page to learn if the intensity of their passion will be stronger than any social or racial barriers.
Without any hesitation, I am rating Noonday Flower by Carla C. Ohse 4 out of 4 stars. With strong female protagonists, an exciting storyline, and historically realistic settings, the novel also benefits from an excellent editing. There was nothing I disliked about it. On the contrary, I wholeheartedly recommend it to all those who enjoy reading an original story set in troubled times and featuring characters who rise above their circumstances by means of hard work and education. Readers of historical fiction as well as fans of suspenseful love stories will be equally delighted by this book. Despite its anti-racist message, there are only one or two instances of borderline profanities. Even the scenes of physical coercion were thus rendered so as not to offend more sensitive readers. Last but not least, some love scenes are full of eroticism, but not highly explicit. All things considered, I hope I will read more of this author in the future.
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