June 4, 2007

“The Rules aren’t made to be broken”

In the prologue of LEMON CITY, her first novel, Elaine Meryl Brown tells the story of the founding by five Black men of the town of Lemon City in a valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. One of the founders brought down from the mountain 10 rules by which the residents of Lemon City were to govern themselves.

Like any good mystery, LEMON CITY begins with a corpse. The dead man is Harry Lee Thompson, husband of Faye Dunlap, younger daughter of Granddaddy and Nana Dunlap. Faye breaks the first Rule of Lemon City (NEVER MARRY AN OUTSIDER. IF YOU DO, THE BOLL WEEVIL WILL BITE YOU BACK) when she returns home from college with an outsider husband. She tries to persuade Nana to accept Harry. Nana remains her that “the rules aren’t made to be broken.” Faye’s actions in marrying and bringing home the outsider are the central incidents that drive the plot.

The present time of the story is Thanksgiving Day 1973. All six members of the Dunlap family are under house arrests, suspects in the death of Harry. The events leading up to Harry’s death are told in flashbacks mainly from Faye’s point of view. While the plot centers on Faye’s actions, the narrative voice is not solely hers. Each of the six family members, Nana, Granddaddy, sister Louise, brother Billy, and his wife Elvira, get to say their piece.

LEMON CITY is not a murder mystery in the true sense of the genre. Harry’s death is the hook Brown uses to keep the reader interested. He is the convenient villain that the reader can focus on and not hate Faye for her defiance of her grandparents and The Rules. Brown’s real purpose is to tell the story through the Dunlap family of how the citizens of Lemon City govern themselves by The Rules and, by the way, show a little Black American history and culture in a small, seemingly isolated Black American town in Appalachia in the 1970s.

Brown’s use of similes gives the novel the folkloric tone and flavor of southern Black speech. The picture of Harry as Nana sees him while he is alive so visually captures Harry that the reader cannot forget him. He reminds her “of a stick of beef jerky….” The narrator describing Harry in death sounds like a southern storyteller sitting on the porch telling about what happened in the town in 1973: Harry is “dead as a slug caught out in the sun after a heavy rain.” As for Lemon City, “…change was as foreign to Lemon City as a silkworm feasting on a Virginia suncured tobacco leaf….”

The beautiful descriptions of Lemon City convey the impression of a quiet little town isolated in a valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains barely if ever touched by scandal. However, the residents get their news from TV, radio, books and newspapers, and are as aware of current events, especially involving Black folks in the U. S., as any city dweller.

The comic relationship between Nana and her neighbor Old Miss Johnson, long time friends who have become bitter rivals in the annual tomato-growing contest at the Annual County Fair, lightens the mood and makes the novel fun to read. As in many a small town, events and historical time in Lemon City are marked by the County Fair.

Brown’s use of similes is both a strength and a weakness. They give the characters and place believability. Some of the similes are good, but used too often, many will be, and are, just plain bad. Annoying is Brown’s mannerism of giving the complete year, make, and model of cars each time she mentions the same car. Harry’s car is an “…eight-cylinder, two-door white Pontiac GTO….” Telling the reader this once is enough. Any further mention could just be the GTO or Pontiac.

Good storytellers are rare. Brown is one of the good ones, and she writes prose that is fun to read. I like that she uses Black culture of Appalachia as the setting because it shows we Black folks live in the mountains as well as the cities.