Omnivorous Reader

A Tree Grows in Carolina

Two debut novels renew old Brooklyn ties

By D.G. Martin

Some North Carolina literary old-timers remember a special link between North Carolina and Brooklyn.

In 1943 Harper & Brothers published the best-seller, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, one of America’s most-loved novels. The North Carolina connection?

Although its author, Betty Smith, based the novel on her experiences growing up in Brooklyn, she wrote the book in Chapel Hill. As a struggling divorcée with two children, she had moved to North Carolina to work at the University of North Carolina as a part of Paul Green’s writing program. The money she earned kept her going until the success of her book gave stability to her economic life.

This year the literary connection between Brooklyn and North Carolina has been renewed by two debut novelists, each with connections in both places. It happened earlier this year when Smith’s publisher, now HarperCollins, released A Woman Is No Man, the debut novel of Etaf Rum.

Like Smith, Rum based her novel on her life growing up in Brooklyn. Like Smith, the divorced Rum moved to North Carolina. Like Smith, she had two children. Like Smith, she found work in higher education, in Rum’s case, community colleges near where she lives in Rocky Mount.

Rum’s Palestinian immigrant family and neighbors in Brooklyn in the 1990s and 2000s are not the same as Smith’s families, whose roots were in Western Europe. Still, both books deal with women’s struggles to make their way in families and communities dominated by men.

The central character in the first part of Rum’s book is Isra, a 17-year-old Palestinian girl whose family forces her into marriage with an older man, Adam. He owns a deli and lives with his parents and siblings in Brooklyn. Adam and Isra move into his family’s basement. Isra becomes a virtual servant to Adam’s mother, Fareeda. She pushes the couple to have children, males who can make money and build the family’s reputation and influence. When Isra produces only four children, all girls, she is dishonored by Fareeda and by Adam, who begins to beat her regularly.

Isra and Adam’s oldest daughter, Deya, becomes the central character of the second part of the book. Adam and Isra have died, and Fareeda raises their children.

When Deya is a high school senior, Fareeda begins to look for a man in the Palestinian community for her to marry. Deya wants to go to college, but she is afraid to bolt from her family and the community’s customs.

Though fiction, A Woman Is No Man is clearly autobiographical. As such, Rum explains, the book “meant challenging many long-held beliefs in my community and violating our code of silence.”

“Growing up,” she writes, “there were limits to what women could do in society. Whenever I expressed a desire to step outside the prescribed path of marriage and motherhood, I was reminded over and over again: A woman is no man.”

She writes that “what I hope people from both inside and outside my community see when they read this novel are the strength and resiliency of our women.” It will stir readers for other reasons, too. Its themes of conflict between a drive for individual fulfillment and the demands of community and family loyalty are universal.

The author’s well-turned and beautiful writing makes reading this debut novel a pleasure. Finally, her careful, fair-minded, sympathetic descriptions of complicated and interesting characters give the story a classic richness. Whether or not A Woman Is No Man attains the beloved status of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, it will surely be a widely appreciated treasure.

Another debut novel connects Brooklyn and North Carolina. This time it is a North Carolina native who moves to Brooklyn from Elizabeth City. From there, De’Shawn Charles Winslow moved to Harlem, where he wrote In West Mills, a book about African-Americans living and struggling in eastern North Carolina from roughly 1940 to 1987. There are no major white characters, and no focus on Jim Crow racism. There is almost nothing about racial conflict or the civil rights struggle. Putting these themes aside, Winslow shows his characters grappling with universal challenges that people of all races confront as they deal with the human situation.

West Mills is a fictional small town in eastern North Carolina, somewhere between Elizabeth City, where the author grew up, and Ahoskie, where the main character of the novel was born and reared.

That main character, Azalea Centre, or Knot, as she is called by everyone, has moved to West Mills from Ahoskie, where her father is a dentist and a bulwark of the local church. Knot, however, wants to get away from her family and make her own way.

She finds a teaching job in West Mills. Knot loves 19th century English literature. That sounds good for a teacher, but she also loves cheap moonshine and bedding a variety of men. One of them, Pratt Shepherd, wants to marry her. But after a session of enthusiastic lovemaking, she tosses him out of her life.

Soon after Pratt leaves, Knot learns she is pregnant. She does not want to end the pregnancy, but wants nothing to do with the child after its birth. To the rescue comes a dear friend, Otis Lee Loving, and his wife, Penelope, or “Pep.” They find a local couple to adopt Knot’s daughter. Only a few people in the community know that Frances, daughter of Phillip and Lady Waters, is really Knot’s birth child.

Shortly after she recovers from her delivery, Knot becomes pregnant again. Otis Lee comes to the rescue once more. He finds a place for the new baby with local storeowners, Brock and Ayra Manning. They name the baby Eunice.

When they grow up, Frances and Eunice, not knowing about their common origin, come to despise each other and fight for the attention of the same man. On this situation, Winslow builds a series of confrontations and complications that challenge the comfortable order of the West Mills community.

Meanwhile, as time passes, the community seems immune to the racial conflicts developing in other parts of the state. In one of the book’s few mentions of racial conflict, Otis Lee hears stories in 1960 about “the young colored people in Greensboro who had organized a sit-in a couple of months earlier” and pronounced it a terrible thing. Winslow writes, “Greensboro hadn’t come to them yet. And Otis Lee hoped things would get better so that it wouldn’t have to.”

Otis Lee is not only Knot’s loyal friend and rescuer, he becomes a major character. In a flashback to prohibition days he travels to New York City to rescue an older sister who is trying to pass for white. That effort fails, but his relationship with that woman provides a poignant thread that carries the book to one of its surprising endings.

Gathering early praise, Charlotte Observer critic Dannye Powell wrote of In West Mills, “Within its confines lies all you need to know of human nature — its stubbornness and grit, its tenderness and devotion, its longing and its sorrow, and how the best-kept secrets will threaten to take apart the heart, chamber by chamber.”

She concludes, “You’ll be hearing more about Winslow and his stunning debut novel.”

You will be hearing more about Winslow and Etaf Rum. Betty Smith would be amazed and proud. 

D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch Sunday at 11 a.m. and Tuesday at 5p.m. on UNC-TV. The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8 p.m. To view prior programs go to http://video.unctv.org/show/nc-bookwatch/episodes/

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