‘Zora and Me’ and me

8032161Zora and Me by Victoria Bond & T.R. Simon

Candlewick Press, 2010.

170 pages + brief autobiography, timeline, & annotated bibliography (hardcover).

“Debut authors Bond and Simon do their subject proud, spinning a tale about the childhood of writer Zora Neale Hurston, who ‘didn’t have any trouble telling a fib or stretching a story for fun.’ So says her friend Carrie Brown, who narrates this novel as an adult looking back on a tumultuous and momentous autumn. Set at the beginning of the 20th century in Hurston’s childhood home of Eatonville, Fla., one of the nation’s first all-black towns, the story follows Carrie and Zora as events–including the gruesome deaths of two men–fuel Zora’s imagination and love of storytelling; the truth behind one of the deaths proves more difficult for Carrie to accept than Zora’s frightening yet mesmerizing stories of the supernatural man-gator she claims is responsible. The maturity, wisdom, and admiration in Carrie’s narration may distance some readers from her as a 10-year-old (‘The bad things that happen to you in life don’t define misery–what you do with them does’). Nevertheless, the authors adeptly evoke a racially fraught era and formative events–whether they’re true or true enough–in Hurston’s youth. Ages 10 — up. (Oct.)” Publishers Weekly

Victoria Bond’s & T.R. Simon’s Zora and Me is a fine introduction to Zora Neale Hurston and the world that birthed her. Told in a warm honey rhythm, the first person narrator Carrie looks back at a time in childhood spent with her best friend Zora. They were ten that year and trouble was stirring in Eatonville, not to mention their greater consciousness.

The reader is lulled into the lives of Carrie, Zora, and Teddy with all the charm and wit Carrie can afford, and with the opening, tantalizing story of a gator attack. We wait for the murder that centers the mystery the three would set out to solve. And then we wait to solve it. Meanwhile, there is that landscape to mind.

Zora and Me begins as if to seat the reader firmly into the setting. And the imagery is successful in transporting the reader into the landscape, both physical and cultural. I had been under the assumption that the story was to revolve around a murder mystery, but it is less plot driven than that. The landscape set about isn’t a mere backdrop. The story refuses to move away and make way for an “adventure story.” The title is more apt than the dust jacket I’d read. The reading soon reveals that it is the plot’s premise that is the backdrop to this character driven portraiture of Zora, “me,” and Eatonville, Florida 1901 (?). Needless to say, those interested in character-driven stories will not be disappointed.

Those readers who are fans of Zora Neale Hurston will not be disappointed by Zora and Me either. The pages are saturated with adoration for Zora. Even when the reader begins to doubt the sainthood of the irrepressible Zora, she surfaces quite triumphantly. Everything in the plot works toward preserving Zora’s halo. Carrie and others might question the wisdom of Zora’s antics, but the antics’ end value outweighs the feeble protests. Zora is a force to be reckoned with and at times I thought Carrie needn’t try to defend Zora’s choices or behavior—time takes care of it on its own.

I figured 170-pages and I could breeze through. It does read smoothly, though I couldn’t say evenly paced; like honey. And like honey, traces linger. I would like to say that Zora and Me is as uncomplicated as you make it, but it remarks on too many relevancies.

Zora and Me is an ambitious novel. Besides illuminating the childhood of an important, influential author, it would honor said author by sharing her concerns. This is where I admit that I have read little of Hurston’s work. I am not going to be able to confidently list the shared motifs, themes, and specific references.  I can identify the eloquently rendered  conversations of how the black community views the white in Zora’s Eatonville (and likely beyond). The fears of one culture tainting the soulful idylls of the other, wholly assimilating while simultaneously repulsing. The human condition with and without the tint of cultural dyes. The explorations of identity, the value of a community that knows itself, how to be in the world but not of it, to be an observer while yet maintaining the line between the observer and the observed. Lines and masks and hue; self and community and other; stories and truth and possibility; worlds inside, outside, and unknown. I’ve trailed off into ideas Zora and Me explore believing that as the novel moves along such trails they do it in honor of Ms. Hurston.

Bond and Simon are painting a story with layers. Zora is accompanied by Me, and Carrie/Me would draw the similarities and differences between herself and Zora, often using herself to characterize Zora. Carrie is a fascinating and complicated character that is more often than not the central Protagonist; she is the main character in a story that Zora created, except it is Carrie who is supposedly telling the story; a story involving intricately carved masks and animal skins…

Carrie moves in and out of being  singular (a self) and representative (girls like her). The first person use of “I” moves in and out of time. “I” is 10, “I” is a grown woman. Zora is 10, Zora is already an accomplished adult. As a Middle-Grade book, Zora and Me tries to minimalize the impact of its cleverly devised complications. I’m curious if it succeeds. As Publisher’s Weekly noted, “The maturity, wisdom, and admiration in Carrie’s narration may distance some readers from her as a 10-year-old.” Is anyone fooled by the presentment of Carrie as a 10 year old girl? I like how the slide into memory becomes a present image. I think the sliding is quite true of how stories work. In and out of skin, in and out of time. The key is to not alert the conscious self, right?—not too glaringly anyhow. Such is the concern of Publisher’s Weekly’s observation. Is the distance recovered enough to recapture the adventurous spirit of Zora? Because it is the premise of adventure, the mystery, the unveiling, that is sold to the middle-grade reader. Or am I mistaken?

The murder mystery aspect of Zora and Me was hardly satisfying. The fear and angst surrounding it did not translate well. If this were filmed (which it probably should be) most of the shots would be distant and objective. I could intellectualize it, and I did feel horror when the circumstances were explained later, but the afterward felt anti-climactic—ah, realist portraiture? The murder mystery is not the thread to follow, it’s misleading. Even thought it would function as the straight line of the novel, it doesn’t serve as a strong focal point. Zora and Me has other compelling laces, like the strongly wrought “Some things/people are exactly how they appear, and some things/people are not.”—which should suit a murder mystery perfectly, except it suits so many other things just as well.

There are so many directions the mind could take, Carries dealing with her father’s disappearance, Zora and whether she is a liar or not, old ladies, the gator-man, the crimes Gold commits against herself and others, the white doctor, the overt explanations for why a character responded in this way and that…I, who believes that a story need not be remotely straightforward in manner, am in wonder as to how the authors managed a straightforward story that wasn’t. I supposed it zig-zagged along a plumbed line.

The layers Bond and Simon created do slip together, some more subtly than others, some more easily than others. I felt Gold’s introduction to be a turning point, and it felt like the rogue wave jostling the boat. The jostle is a memory clouded, because in retrospect it worked, of course. Such were some of the little pebbles trod upon. The Myth and Lore of Gator Country book sequence felt transparent, but like the other pieces I had to wait and see what the authors were up to. (If are not invested by then, you’ve already set the book aside.)

I find myself mulling over an inorganic flavor in the read that could be explained by the saturation of admiration and/or the number of ingredients in the content. Where a short story creates an effortless complexity under a gilded hand like Hurston’s, it isn’t actually effortless—it just isn’t transparent. The novel’s hard work shows. That lace edge sagging past the hem creates undesirable tension. Is the slip going to fall and embarrass us all? In Zora and Me, it holds. Much of what saves it is how well written each chapter is, and the lovely spin of images.

While I appreciated Carrie’s commentary, I would have liked to have seen the story have a greater confidence in itself. And yet, I understand that there is a great deal of ignorance (including my own) that would necessitate the insights Carrie is able to offer (as well as Zora). The balance in the approach was a difficult one. I am grateful Bond and Simon were bold enough to take it.

Certain audiences will find greater pleasure in this book, and a quick focus.  Easily, Zora and Me is for older readers who are fans of Hurston’s work, they will read this despite its Middle Grade designation. Historical Fiction readers; those who enjoy biographies (fictionalized or no); those interested in a non-white person’s perspective on history as well as contemporary culture; most anyone from the south and not only Florida; young writers—and friends of young writers.

The friends having and adventure is a bit of a lure, and one I hope the otherwise reluctant readers will bite. I think Zora and Me makes hightly accessible histories and ideas and perspectives that should provoke thought. The novel shows beautiful faces that are too often left unseen, mirrors left unpublished. One if not more of the stories will compel, and in the end, it feels good to have read it.

Zora and Me may not be the most effortless read for some, but I think everyone could be the better for having read it—middle grade or no.


pulled this from my ‘concenter list’ (see above page tab). a first step to get me back on my goal? one-two a week from the list…

Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

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