Here's what I brought with me to my reading of Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and TR Simon: A historical understanding but not a personal knowledge of the experience of black Americans, a handful of literary run-ins with Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and interest and excitement generated by the New York Times article by Felicia R Lee titled, Revered Writer Becomes Girl Detective. I haven't read Hurston's most famous work, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. I haven't even seen the movie. But, any book with a character, especially the fictionalized child version of a famous literary figure, who can be described as a girl detective sounds like a good thing to me so I jumped right in. After finishing the book, I can't honestly say that the young Hurston of Zora and Me fits my idea of what a girl detective is (Harriet the Spy, Enola Holmes) but I can say that, while the main characters of the book are not crime solvers in the stereotypical kidlit tradition, what they bring to the mystery of the novel gives them a humanness, depth and understanding of their world far beyond that which most young characters arrive at by the end of a mystery.
The actual mystery in the book begins with an enormous alligator named Ghost, who disappears after mortally wounding a brash young man who thinks he can fight the gator. Shortly after this incident, which Carrie and Zora witness because they have been eavesdropping in the right place at the right time, a young man with "skin almost the same color as his hair and his eyes, like somebody poured dark honey all over him" appears under the branches of the Loving Pine, a tree named and brought to life by Zora and her unique way of looking at the world. The children introduce themselves to the man, who's name is Ivory, and listen to him sing a song that convinces Carrie that whoever "poured honey on his skin had let it run all down his voice, too." A trip to the nearby town of Lake Maitland, where black women pretend that they are shopping for nonexistent white employers in order to freely patronize the stores (Zora and Carrie think these are "white lies," tales required by white folk in order to move in their world) introduces them to a young woman named Gold, a source of gossip and speculation among the adults. During this visit to town, Zora spies The Myth and Lore of Gator Country in the window of a bookstore and begs her mother to buy it, hoping that it can explain the mysterious nature of Ghost as well as the odd behavior of their neighbor, Mr Pendir, a man Zora is convinced can turn himself into a half-gator at will. When Ivory is found murdered, his head missing, Zora's wild imaginings and the mysterious world of adults and gators collide and the girls learn some painful truths about Ivory, Gold and Mr Pendir, while suffering bruises and broken bones in the process of clue collecting.
Racial themes, while not the focus of the book, are a foundation of the plot nonetheless. As Simon said of the book in an article in USA Today, how, "if you're writing about black kids in the Jim Crow south," could the story not deal with racism? She goes on to say, "But it's not as if we said to ourselves, 'We want to write a novel about race.' We assume the natural complications of black life. We didn't have to announce that." Blacks passing as white and the repercussions of that decision in both the black and white communities is at the heart of the mystery and, most likely, the reason for the murder, and Carrie and Zora learn the sad details of this at the end of the book. Zora's mystery, the man with the gator head, is also resolved by the end of the book with a death, but not a murder, and an explanation. The threads of both stories are tied up, and together by Joe Clarke, the store owner and town marshall, who knows the life stories of all the people involved in the unfolding events. However, it is a white man, the elderly Mr Ambrose who helped to deliver Zora into this world and has remained an important part of her life and confidant ever since, who helps Zora to make sense of what she has uncovered. When Zora tells him the the sad tale of Ivory and Gold, after a long, thoughtful pose, Mr Ambrose replies, using the pet name he has for her, Snidlets,
Only special people can put real-life puzzles with human pieces together. You're one of those folks, Snidlets. You got a brain in your head there ain't no match for - way smarter than algebra. You also got the feelings in your gut to go with it. It's a gift for you to share. Don't be stingy with what you know, but be sure of the folks you're sharing it with.
As an adult, the amazingly wonderful thing about reading Zora and Me is catching glimpses of the future writer in the character of young Zora. When Carrie shares the traits that make Zora who she is, it is easy to see how she will turn this ability to "put real-life puzzles with human pieces" together into a writing life. This, combined with Zora's fascination with the world beyond Eatonville seems to set her on the path to New York City and the Harlem Renaissance. I'm not entirely sure what a young reader will take away from this book. For me, the book had the power of transporting me back to the perspective of an eight or nine year old watching the world around me, wanting to be noticed and accepted by adults and most of all wanting to understand them. By the end of the book, I felt like I had finished reading a story in which adults were the main characters, but seen through the eyes of children. I could just as easily imagine Zora and Me being rewritten as a story for adults, perhaps titled Ivory and Gold, in which the lies, passions and mistakes that adults make are played out while the children of these characters orbit the periphery. Either way, this book is remarkable in many ways, both for the new territory it covers in the world of children's literature - the historical aspects and the fact that it introduces an important American literary figure in to young readers, but also because this is the first book not written by Hurston herself that has been endorsed by the Zora Neal Hurston Trust, despite many attempts to fictionalize her life on the page and on screen. I will be very surprised if Zora and Me doesn't receive some Newbery attention next month.