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The Sweet Shade of a Chinaberry Tree

Gaynell McGowan, forced to spend the summer of 1963 in her little town of Beulah, Alabama, returns home from college to face a provincial purgatory until classes resume in the fall. But history is about to strike Beulah like a deadly tornado. A federal order to integrate the high school shakes the town to its foundation and pits friend against neighbor. White citizens polarize into integrationists and segregationists with both sides claiming the favor of God and vying for the favor of reporters and news cameras that swarm over the town. Gaynell welcomes the disruption of a stagnant small-town summer, but then finds herself swirling at the scandalous center of the storm. And she finds her family, as well as her town, tearing apart.

A Hard Shell Word Factory Release

Janice Ward Parrish

    I grew up in Alabama. I left the first chance I got, which came in the form of a scholarship to Ohio University. While there, I married and then took a master’s degree in English, taught for Job Corps, moved to Florida, and divorced. With my life in the back of U-Haul truck, I moved to Coconut Grove, Florida where I bought a bike, burned my bras, and drank wine from paper cups with other lost and seeking souls (supporting myself on a post-grad fellowship and as a teacher of English to Cubans). Then I wandered into a real job in personnel administration and moved to Delray Beach, sold the bike, bought bras, and drank wine from crystal with other mortgage-paying strivers. After retiring as a human resources director, I took up downhill skiing and writing novels.


8 gargoyles

"The controversial and passionate subject of segregation was handled sensitively and realistically. A variety of characters contributed different perspectives to the issue, providing a more thorough treatment of this topic. Especially appropriate was the love affair between Gaynell and Willis, a black student at a nearby college. As they explored their forbidden feelings, their relationship served as a microcosm of the larger dilemma the population of Beulah was experiencing. History was smoothly integrated into the story line, providing necessary facts as well as the motivation for the characters' actions Excellent writing allowed the plot to develop at a good pace while keeping the reader's interest. A few well-timed twists highlighted the uncertainty of the times and emphasized the emotional aspect. The Sweet Shade of a Chinaberry Tree allows a bit of history to live again!"

Joyce Handzo -- In the Library Reviews

"The Sweet Shade of a Chinaberry Tree not only reminds of the not so distant past but also serves as a wake up call about contemporary issues of racism. Although the actual story is fictional, the author has used real historical events and real people within the story to add a deeper sense of realism and to educate the reader about the circumstances"

TCM Reviews

"I remember those days of the sixties, and Parrish does an excellent job of recreating the attitudes of the period. I appreciated that she showed not only both sides of the civil rights issue, but also showed that there were differing opinions on each side. I'd like to read more from Janice Ward Parrish and highly recommend The Sweet Shade of a Chinaberry Tree."

Marie DisBrow -- Road To Romance

"Ms. Parrish has documented an important turning point in our nation's history, a time that should always be remembered. I would not recommend this book to those younger than perhaps sixteen, due to the sexual encounters, although they are not extremely graphic. There is also some violence described that is true to the era but may be disturbing to younger readers. All in all, The Sweet Shade of a Chinaberry Tree is very well written, extremely well researched, and a thought-provoking read."

MargeAnna Conrad -- Novelspot

"Enduring painful violence and loss, Gaynell learns about life outside the refuge of the chinaberry tree. This beautiful coming-of-age story captures the mind and soul of a turbulent time in history."

Christine Jackson -- literature professor and author of MYTH AND RITUAL IN WOMEN'S DETECTIVE FICTION, Plantation, Florida

Chapter One

"NEW YORK CITY." The words swirled around my mouth like the wine I imagined drinking there in some basement café with checkered tablecloths and candles in wax-covered Chianti bottles. The prospect of a whole summer in New York was so exciting, I thought the pressure of it inside me might split my head wide open. My college roommate Brett Yardley had a cousin there who said we could stay in her Greenwich Village loft and share the rent after we found summer jobs, and Brett's mother, who had been a model in New York when she was young, only fueled our anticipation with her stories of the city, which I poured into a nine-page letter to my parents informing them of our summer plans.

Then came the reply written on Mama's lavender stationery, but in my father's small, scurrying handwriting. Daddy, who never picked one foot up off the ground before he knew exactly where he was going to put it down, was not convinced of my ability to find a job that would pay my share of the expenses, and to avoid the throngs of New Yorkers lying in wait to snatch young Southern girls. He vetoed my plans—absolutely and irrevocably.

Thus, while Brett sped by Pullman car to New York, I was coming home on the bus, to languish in Beulah for three months until life began again in the fall with my return to the University of Alabama. Outside the bus window, the south Alabama fields of cotton sped by, interrupted now and then by massive gobs of kudzu, which, like a giant fungus, blanketed trees, telephone poles, and any hapless thing that stood in its path. Inside, gas fumes and stale sweat smell settled around me like swamp gas as the bus inexorably devoured the miles between my hometown and me.

Even if it weren't for New York, Beulah, Alabama was the last place on earth I wanted to spend the summer of 1963. After nine months of college, I now saw my hometown for what it was—culturally desolate, intellectually inbred, and ramshackle. Last fall I had felt lost at the big school, which had twice as many students as my hometown had citizens. Then I landed a small part in the drama department's production of The Time of Your Life. That part led me to find my niche among the drama, philosophy, and English majors. Their conversation ran to topics unimaginable in Beulah—sex, race, and open questioning of religion—and I found all of it irresistible. I was even thinking of changing my major to drama, or maybe philosophy, hoping these disciplines might do for me what they had done for my freethinking friends.

Especially intriguing to me were their views on civil rights. Until I met them, I'd thought that Grannie Mac and I were the only white people in the South who'd ever questioned our casual dehumanization of Negroes. In a few timid observations of the contradictions between our Christian principles and our treatment of Negroes, my grandmother had planted in me the seeds that grew into a furtive aversion to the whole system of segregation in the South. At college, my aversion became overt rejection.

Neither my newly acquired sociological views nor my plans for an off-beat major would be welcome news to Mama and Daddy—especially Mama whose imagination rarely strayed beyond the Beulah city limits—although I couldn't worry too much about it. Butting heads with Mama was a fact of life. Still, I had news I was worried about telling them. It couldn't be put off, and I still hadn't figured out how to do it.

* * *

EVERYBODY WAS AT the bus station when I got there, not that meeting me was a big family affair. Daddy was the Greyhound and Western Union agent in Beulah, which meant he owned and ran the bus station, so he was always there. My brother Austin was there helping Willie, my father's colored employee who loaded the buses. Only Mama was there just to meet me.

I stepped off the bus and was enveloped in Mama's hug and a cloud of White Shoulders perfume. Her hair, as always, was swept up into a flawless French twist, and her flower-print jacket dress was a sure sign she had just come from garden club. Mama was a big believer in appropriate dress for all occasions, and her ideas of appropriate were as rigid as a poker. After nine blessed months of the world's indifference to my social acceptability, the prospect of a summer under Mama's scrutiny only added to my dejection.

"Are you hungry?" she asked as the first in a stream of questions. Until she got all the questions out of her system, there was no use in trying to answer.

Daddy was inside, besieged with travelers buying last-minute tickets to Auburn and points east. As Mama and I went in, I motioned her to be quiet and slipped into the ticket line to surprise Daddy.

Except for turning the colored waiting room into a baggage room, the station hadn't changed much in my lifetime. Same old church pews, bought cheap from some congregation fallen on hard times; same old windows with the wavy glass; same old Daddy, long, knobby, and pale.

It was hard to think of him in any setting besides the bus station. He was there for the 8:35 morning bus to Birmingham and for the 10:40 night bus from Atlanta. And when there weren't any buses, he was there just to keep up. He had his mouth open to ask me where I wanted to go before he recognized me. When he saw me, the fatigue fell from his face, and a crooked, all too rare smile spread across his face. "Well, if it's not Miss Gaynell McGowan, all smarted up and sophisticated. C'mon in here and hug your old daddy's neck," he said, turning on his stool and holding out his arms.

Forgetting my newly acquired sophistication, I scrambled under the counter through the baggage door as I had done as a child and hugged my father. I could feel his ribs through his shirt.

Austin came in through the regular door looking even taller than the last time I had seen him. Instead of his usual sideways shoulder-squeeze of a hug, he grabbed me head on and deliberately slathered me with sweat.

"Let me go, you filthy thing," I said and squirmed out of his grip.

Austin just laughed. Since the next bus wasn't due until 8:45 that night, Daddy and Austin would follow Mama and me home for supper as soon as my bus pulled out.

* * *

MAMA PULLED THE car into the long driveway leading to the garage in the back of the house and stopped at the kitchen door. "Corrine's making pork chops and gravy for supper, and she's mighty anxious to see you."

Corrine was our maid. When I walked in, she was standing at the stove nudging the pork chops around the skillet with a wooden spatula. It suddenly struck me how vital she was to our family—and how opposite. We were from blue-eyed Scottish stock and a tallish lot, except for Austin who was a full-fledged giant even at sixteen. To the best of Mama's abilities, everything we said, did, wore, and used was guided by her notions of good taste and the avoidance of being talked about.

Corrine was as little as a minute and coal black. Her arms sparkled with a dozen silvery bracelets, and her clothing reflected a love of color and caprice. She'd lived in a lavender house with two husbands for twenty years. Yet, even Mama allowed that God might overlook Corrine's excursion into bigamy because we couldn't get along without her in heaven. As far as Corrine was concerned, if it ever occurred to her that other people might hold opinions about her, she didn't let on.

She moved the skillet over to a cold eye and hugged my waist until her bracelets bit into my back. I bent over and hugged her shoulders.

* * *

CORRINE OUTDID HERSELF with dinner. Besides the pork chops, there were field peas in pot liquor, rice and gravy, collards, and airy corn muffins in crispy crusts. Because of the special homecoming dinner, we ate in the dining room even though it was Friday night. Mama didn't ordinarily subject her solid cherry dining table to weekday wear and tear.

Austin was late getting to the table. Finally, he came limping into the room holding his groin.

"Whatever is the matter with you, Austin?" Mama asked.