The Shelf: Daniel Black

Teresa Weaver on Georgia writers

Daniel Black

Daniel Black’s third novel—after They Tell Me of a Home and The Sacred Place—is a complex, imaginative story of one unforgettable black family in mid-twentieth-century Arkansas. Perfect Peace (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99) begins when Emma Jean Peace delivers her seventh son and makes the unfathomable decision to raise the child—named Perfect—as a girl. Perfect is the adored daughter Emma Jean always wanted, until reality becomes unavoidable. When Perfect turns eight, her mother tells her, “You was born a boy. I made you a girl. But that ain’t what you was supposed to be. So, from now on, you gon’ be a boy. It’ll be a little strange at first, but you’ll get used to it, and this’ll be over after a while.” Without ceremony or excuse, Perfect is rechristened Paul. Calling that situation “a little strange” doesn’t begin to do it justice, as the entire family tries to cope with the fallout in very different ways. The great strength of this novel is a cast of indelible characters, from the fatally flawed Emma Jean to the long-suffering father, Gus, and the six magnificently named sons—James Earl, Authorly, Woody, King Solomon, Blind Bartimaeus, and Mister—who must guide the reinvention of their sister into a brother. Author Black, a professor at Clark Atlanta University, raises grand questions about truth, gender, sexuality, redemption, and even retribution by keeping a tight focus on the Peace family. The story has elements that seem biblical, mythical, and folkloric all at once, with a transformative river named Jordan flowing throughout: “Just as [Paul] stood, the Jordan began to sing him a lullaby . . . He would recall the tune years later and hum it whenever his past threatened to overwhelm him. For now, he listened until his heart was clean. Until he was free.”

Also this month:

Murder in Baker Company: How Four American Soldiers Killed One of Their Own by Cilla McCain
(Chicago Review Press, $24.95)
Cilla McCain, who grew up on Army bases and lives now in the Georgia mountains, untangles the details of the 2003 death of Army Specialist Richard T. Davis, who was tortured and killed by members of his platoon near Fort Benning while on leave from Iraq. Using heart-wrenching interviews with Davis’s family, along with court transcripts, police reports, and other source material, McCain raises the question of the military’s ability to cope with violence related to post-traumatic stress disorder or gangs, especially in noncombat deaths. “We can no longer view these issues remotely from a television screen,” she says. “This book is about the cost of war on the most personal level imaginable.”

African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: The Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee by Philip Morgan
(University of Georgia Press, $34.95)
Ten original essays by scholars from Cambridge to the University of Texas shed light on the history and the living legacy of a West African–influenced culture sheltered and simultaneously marginalized by its physical remoteness. “Gullah-Geechee culture is strikingly, excitingly, and mysteriously different, an exotic phenomenon,” editor Philip Morgan writes. “At the same time, however, the lowcountry has some claims on being a significant part—in some instances, a central component—of the black experience in North America.”

Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895 by Theda Perdue
(University of Georgia Press, $26.95)
The Cotton States and International Exposition, a world’s fair intended to attract Northern capital and stimulate international trade in Atlanta, took place at a pivotal time in the history of the South and the nation, writes Theda Perdue, a historian at the University of North Carolina. “The region’s progress provided a theme for the exposition, but organizers understood that progress rested on solving the ‘race problem’ . . . However industrialized the South might be, no one could take seriously the region’s claim to progress and modernity until it imposed social order.” This is a fascinating slice of American history, written with deep insight and unusual grace.

Photograph by John Kenneth Thompson