Melinda Haynes has been a painter for most of her life and her eye for color is obvious in her debut novel, MOTHER OF PEARL. Haynes creates a tapestry of life, love and family that, while reminiscent of Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, has a freshness and style all its own.
MOTHER OF PEARL is as much about the characters as it is about the plot. Even Grade, a middle-aged black man, stands on a bridge over the River Leaf with one foot in Hattiesburg and the other in Petal. In this position, Even is able to see the rainbow in the river --- "Ten-Minute Tea. Steeped-Too-Long Tea. Barely Tea. Wet Bark. Sun-Baked Bark. Old-as-Sin Bark. Old Soggy Leaves. Just-Dropped Leaves. Fresh Wet Leaves. And these were just the browns." Even is a contemplative man. He was raised in an orphanage in Memphis, Tennessee and doesn't know his father or mother. Years later, he has fashioned a family of sorts out of the inhabitants of Petal, Mississippi.
Canaan is Even's next door neighbor, and can usually be found on Even's front porch waiting to be offered a cup of coffee so he can begin exploring new themes from his thesis: "The Reality of the Negro." These explorations with Even turn into arguments more often than not, but they are part of the closeness Even and Canaan bring to their relationship.
Just Plain Grace is Canaan's girlfriend and she is as practical and down-to-earth as Canaan is esoteric. Grace has raised Joleb since his birth.
Joody Two Sun wears sticks in her hair --- one for each year of her life --- following the tradition started by her family. Living in the forest just outside of Petal, she is thought by some to be a spiritual seer, a witch, or even Satan. Even's encounter with Judy Tucson (as he believes her name to be) leads to a beautiful romance and a dramatic rescue from a flash flood. For some reason, Joody has a hard time "reading" Even, but this is not the case with most --- Valuable Korner being an excellent example.
Valuable Korner is a 15-year-old white girl living in Petal. She is the daughter of a whore who has abandoned her and a father she has never known. In many ways, she, like Even, is an orphan. After her mother leaves, she moves in with her aunt and her aunt's girlfriend. While exploring in her aunt's attic, Valuable begins to piece together the complex story of her family.
Jackson is Valuable's half-brother and everyone in Petal seems to know this except for Valuable and Jackson. The two are inseparable and in love --- until Jackson's family moves to Georgia to care for his ailing grandmother. But what Jackson leaves behind will bring Even, Joody, Grace, Canaan, Joleb and Valuable together under very unusual circumstances.
Haynes' characters are wonderfully developed and the African, African-American, and Native-American folklore that binds their lives together only makes me hope that Haynes will continue to write.
Reviewed by Debra K. Bullock on June 1, 2000