Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simpson, 170 pp RL 4


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.

First, though, I have to say that Zora and Me has some of the most beautiful, poetic, image rich writing I have read in a long time.  The second most notable aspect of this book, what sets this book apart from traditional kid's mysteries above all else, is the fact that the children in this book don't keep secrets from the adults.  For whatever reasons, plot usually being the foremost, children in books that involve a mystery of some sort or another do not tell their parents or other adults about the trouble they have witnessed or are involved in and the suspense and danger escalates.  One of the unique things about Zora and Me is the fact that, at almost every step of the way, Zora is either telling an adult about what has gone on or trying to tell one, and she has a fine circle of trusted adults to turn to.  This lessens the suspense and sense of danger in the story to a certain degree, but makes up for it with a sense of safety and community for the children to explore and grow in.  This makes sense and fits perfectly with the setting for the novel, Hurston's home town of Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all black towns formed after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and incorporated on August 15, 1887.  Everyone in this small town knows each other and watches out for each other, even though there is definitely a class structure within the town.  In the second chapter of the book, we see Zora and her best friends Carrie, the narrator, and Teddy, on the playground at school, being chided by the Brazzles.  The Brazzles is the nickname Zora, Carrie and Teddy have given to Stella Brazzle and her gaggle of friends, all of whom are the children of professional men.  The Brazzles act like they are the "duchesses and countesses and princesses of Eatonville.  They carried themselves like every day was Easter."  The Brazzles don't like Zora, both for the attention that she attracts with her storytelling and the fact that she has a way of embellishing the truth.  Just when you think you are getting a feel for the direction that Zora and Me is headed in, school yard teasing, class differences and best friends, the story takes a turn.

A turn I should have seen coming, if I had read the first chapter a little bit closer. Carrie begins her story by saying, "It's funny how you can be in a story but not realize until the end that you were in one."  Two weeks before the start of fourth grade, Zora and Carrie are sitting under the "big sweet gum tree across the road from Joe Clarke's storefront making sure we were in earshot of the chorus of men that perched on his porch." The girls were "listening to the menfolk's stories and salty comments and filing them away to talk about later on." This is where the real heart of Zora and Me lies.  A more traditional kid detective story might have taken Zora from the playground taunting and disbelief on a quest to prove her classmates wrong for the sake of saving face in front of them. Instead, after that brief scene, Zora, with Carrie and Teddy in tow, finds herself following a trail of adults and their mysterious ways, wanting to piece it together and understand the bigger picture. In many ways, this fact makes Zora and Me one of the most realistic, true to life mysteries for children on the bookshelves today, along with The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd. Most readers don't encounter crimes and mysteries as children, let alone decide to solve them. The one true mystery in the life of a child is most often the adults who orbit their world with their strange ways and odd reasons for doing what they do. While there is a murder in Eatonville, a murder that links all the orbiting oddities together, the real mystery that Zora gets to the bottom of is one that is both profound and sad. This experience only feeds Zora's desire to know more about the wide world that she can't wait to explore. For Carrie it awakens the knowledge that she is not alone in the world.  Wrapped in the arms of Mrs Hurston, Carrie works up the courage to look into her heart, a heart she thought held only herself, and finds "all of Eatonville. After taking a good long look inside myself, I also knew that my heart didn't belong to me.  I wasn't even its landlord. The people, dirt, trees, bricks, and air of Eatonville were. Eatonville wasn't just my home.  It was my destiny."

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.

Author Zora Neale Hurston, who died in 1960, is reinvented as a young detective in the novel Zora and Me.

Zora Neale Hurston, 1891 - 1960.  The book Zora and Me provides an excellent timeline of Hurston's life as well as other resources for learning more about her work, both as a novelist, playwright and folklorist.

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