By Daniel Black
St. Martin’s Press; $25.99, 341 pages
By Gina Webb / For the AJC
By the spring of 1940, when Emma Jean Peace goes into labor with her seventh child, she’s already had six boys too many. All she wants is a daughter to cuddle and pamper. She’s always “dreamed of stroking a little girl’s hair and binding it with golden ribbons, ” of giving her pretty clothes and telling her how beautiful she is.
So when the midwife holds up a boy — “Yep! He’s a beauty!” — Emma Jean makes a fateful decision. She blackmails the midwife to keep his gender a secret, and announces to her waiting family that they have a new baby sister.
Her name? “Perfect Peace, ” the eponymous heroine of Daniel Black’s third novel, an ingenious coming-of-age — and coming-out — story that takes place in Swamp Creek, Ark., over 10 years and challenges stereotypes about gender and identity, rural life and traditional roles in the African-American family.
Black imbues the Peace family with both human and mythic qualities: Emma Jean’s husband, Gus, is a farmer and stern disciplinarian with a third-grade education, but during the rains that come each spring, he releases a year’s worth of pent-up emotions from his “oversized heart” by wading into the river and crying his eyes out. His six wonderfully named sons — Authorly, Mister, Bartimeus, Woody, James Earl and King Solomon— are hardworking farm boys, but each possesses a folkloric talent, such as an unearthly voice or the ability to tell spellbinding tall tales.
Emma Jean is the most flawed member of the family, a far cry from the stereotypically strong, comforting, stable matriarch of most African-American families. Deeply disappointed with her unromantic life, emotionally stunted by an abusive mother, Emma Jean is maternal in her love for Perfect, but scorns the needs of her husband and sons. Emma Jean has no divine powers, no charms — and most tragically, after grooming her youngest son into the doll-like Perfect, lacks the strength to face the damage she’s caused.
Seeing signs that her charade can’t last, Emma Jean heartlessly breaks the news to her daughter the day after her eighth birthday: “You was born a boy. I made you a girl. But that ain’t what you was supposed to be. So, from now on, you gon’ be a boy.”
Within the hour, the beribboned, ultra-feminine Perfect — now called Paul — finds himself in boys’ cast-off clothes, abruptly tossed to the wolves: The townspeople, churchgoers, schoolmates, and his father and brothers, all of whom believed him to be a her.
In a clever twist on the coming-out process, Paul mourns the affection and admiration he elicited as Perfect — being cuddled and told he was pretty and precious. Though Emma Jean shrinks from Paul’s rehabilitation, his father and brothers rise to the occasion as his masculine mentors: “Don’t no boys pee sittin’ down, ” they warn. Eight years of training aren’t easy to undo, and in desperation, Gus beats Paul to break him of his love for women’s clothing.
But what to do when 16-year-old Paul can’t control his feelings for his hunky neighbor, Johnny Ray? Or when the two impulses combine, and he coolly observes Johnny Ray’s date at a school dance: “The mustard yellow, straight-cut dress hung nicely on her, Paul thought, and reminded him of the yellow dress he wore to his eighth birthday party.”
While his family and the surrounding community struggle to accept Paul as a real boy, Emma Jean battles her devastating guilt at having “ruined” her son. “You gon’ wish to God you had let that boy be a boy, ” the midwife warns her. “He gon’ always have some girl in him. Always. Thanks to you.” But when other boys — not raised as girls — in Swamp Creek reveal their homosexuality, “Perfect Peace” leaves the question of “nature versus nurture” unanswered.
Black can be heavy-handed at times, using cliched dialect and overblown, strained language that undermine his dramatic effects. Yet part of the book’s charm and force is its “oversized heart, ” that bottled-up, borderline hysteria that leads Gus Peace to purge his emotions each year by howling in the rain. The result is a high-spirited, compassionate look at everyone’s longings for perfection, both inside and out.