||Oprah Book Club® Selection, June 1999: Twenty-eight-year-old Even Grade is a black man who was orphaned as a child; 15-year-old Valuable Korner is a white girl who might as well have been. Petal, Mississippi, circa 1956, seems an unlikely spot for these two to connect, but it soon becomes apparent in Mother of Pearl that a friendship across race lines is just one of many miracles waiting to happen in this small Southern town. Melinda Haynes's remarkable debut novel begins in a hot August, when young Val's lifelong friendship with Jackson McClain is starting to change into something more profound, and Even is falling crazy in love with Joody Two Sun, a mixed-race woman with amazing powers.
Woven in and around these two central love stories are myriad other characters, other tales. There is 16-year-old Joleb Green, for example, whose mother was incapacitated by a stroke when he was born, and who was raised by the black housekeeper, Grace. There is Even's friend Canaan, an older black man who spends his time reading Greek tragedy and writing his work "The Reality of the Negro"; Valuable's mother, Enid, the town whore; and Neva and Bea, a lesbian couple who have helped to raise the girl. Until this year, blacks and whites have occupied separate universes, for the most part; then Joleb Green suffers a terrible accident, and it is Joody Two Sun who saves his life and Grace who restores his soul. At the same time, a pregnant Val arrives on Joody and Even's doorstep, hungry for the understanding and acceptance she cannot find at home. Though at first Even is resistant, Val's humanity soon transcends her color in his mind:
Even chuckled and shook his head, happy for a reason he couldn't distinguish other than at that moment of Canaan's near-perfect cast, all seemed right with the world, as right as a thing can be what with a white girl camped out in the middle of the Quarter with no plans of leaving. Gradually, without really intending it, Joleb, Val, Even, Joody, Grace, and Canaan form something that looks suspiciously like a family--a relationship that will soon be tested to the limit when Val's baby is born.
Melinda Haynes has taken on a Herculean task, crafting a multicharacter story that reaches across racial barriers to encompass an entire community. She doesn't shy away from the ugliness in life--bigotry of every stripe, mean-spiritedness, betrayal, thoughtless cruelty, and death--but what interests her is the potential of the human heart to find space within itself for the most unexpected people. With its strong, lyrical language and fully realized characters, Mother of Pearl is a fine novel and a terrific introduction to a new literary voice. --Alix Wilber