“Scarlet Sister Mary”

August 21, 2009 at 8:55 am | Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

Scarlet Sister Mary, by Julia Peterkin, won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1929.  I read it in two minds.

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On the one hand, this is a really delightful story.  Scarlet Sister Mary is a great character, bold and sensual, and Peterkin’s writing includes pretty touches of nature that almost make a fairy tale.  I could see this being someone’s favorite book.

On the other hand, it’s just really hard to read stuff from the early part of the 20th century with a modern ear for political correctness.  Reading dialect is bad enough.  I’m glad nobody uses locutions such as “I’se gwine” in novels today, or if they do I hope it’s in a spirit of irony.  Beyond this, there’s the portrayal of blacks as simple and happy, in the sense that they were “better off” in primitive conditions.  I would think this is arguable.  It’s one of those things.  If Julia Peterkin was black, would the book have won the Pulitzer?

That’s the big advantage of reading these almost quaint books in the order in which they were published.  We can enjoy the writing, while realizing that the attitudes behind it will grow more modern and – hopefully – enlightened with the passing decades.


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  1. Was this one difficult to find?

    • Yes and no. It looks like it was reprinted in 1998. My local library didn’t have it, so I got it from San Francisco. It looks like used copies are going for about $5.00 out here.

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