By Jayne Padgett Bowers
The first South Carolinian to win the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, Julia Peterkin won the coveted award in 1929, and though the honor was controversial at the time, Peterkin’s Scarlet Sister Mary, a novel about the Gullah people of the South Carolina coast, triumphed. Recently, I’ve become aware that many South Carolinians have never heard of the book, much less that it earned the first Pulitzer in the Palmetto state—or that it was written by a woman.
Scarlet Sister Mary has been compared to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. While both novels tell the story of young women giving birth out of wedlock and the prevalence of the double standard, that’s where the similarities end. Hester Prynne lived in a Puritan New England environment, shunned by the townspeople while her lover, Dimmesdale, goes about his business as a man of the cloth. Mary lives on a South Carolina plantation and gives birth to nine children, eight out of wedlock. July, the father of her only “heart child,” leaves with another woman, and Mary is deeply wounded.
Hester wears a scarlet A (Adulteress) on her clothing for most of the rest of her life and lives in a cottage on the edge of town with her child, a girl named Pearl. Mary, a strong, independent, outspoken woman lives openly with her children in the Quarters with all the other Gullahs on the plantation. While both women experience some ostracism, Mary is undaunted by the wagging tongues. As she begins having relationships with other men, she’s “turned out” by the church and gossiped about by the others in the Quarters, but this treatment doesn’t stop Mary from her extracurricular activities.
“When you gwine to stop a-sinning, Si May-e?” Doll asked with a hiss on the edge of her words.
“When I get tired seein pleasure,” Mary replies, leaving Doll angry, Doll with her “tubby body, her husky breathy voice, her little sharp eyes.”
I read this book years ago and returned to it recently in search of a specific line of dialogue that impressed me the first time I read Scarlet Sister Mary twenty-five years ago. It wasn’t just the dialogue, that of the Gullah people who live on a South Carolina Plantation, Blue Brook, that was memorable. Everything about the novel impressed me: the way Peterkin nailed the Gullah dialect without hampering the reader’s understanding; the issues of race, gender, religion, and culture; the universal themes of love, marriage, suffering, perseverance; and the importance of connections and social support.
Peterkin, a white woman, writes of the people in “the Quarter” as if she were a part of them—or rather as she knew them as friends, not as workers on a plantation. Hardworking, strong, smart, and attractive, “They are Gullahs with tall straight bodies, and high heads filled with sense,” Peterkin writes on page one. With a clear eye, she saw that their struggles, vices, joys, triumphs, and life changes and challenges were like those of humans everywhere.
Regardless of skin color, social class, gender, or surroundings, people experience many of the same challenges. For instance, love is a universal need that can bring both satisfaction and happiness, misery and despondency, and Peterkin is deft at demonstrating these emotions not only in the characters, especially Mary, but also in nature. “Day after day she sat gazing at nothing, her eyes on the blue hills over the river. There was nothing to see, nothing to hope. The tides came and went, noons followed mornings, night followed day.”
All of the primary characters are richly drawn and unique. Maum Hannah, Budda Ben, July, June, Unex, Doll, Andrew, and even Cinder, July’s love interest, are easy to visualize and know. In their interactions and conversations, the characters remind the reader of important lessons. I’ve been told to “fake it till you make it,” many times, and that’s basically what Budda Ben, Maum Hannah’s crippled son, tells a distraught, depressed Mary when he instructs her to hold her head up and wash her face. “Plenty o tomorrows is ahead o you.” He loves her and wants her to face reality: “Yesterday’s sun is set….Last year’s rain is dry.”
Mary doesn’t like being spoken to so sternly by Budda Ben, yet she recognizes love and concern, not judgment or self-righteousness, as the motivation for speaking so harshly to her. In talking to Mary about her continued despondency over her husband July’s absence, Ben Budda says, “I come to talk stiff words, gal.” That’s the phrase that brought me back to the novel, one I’ve used so often that others have picked it up to use when someone they care about is suffering, making a mistake, or choosing a crooked path.
Budda Ben chastens Mary with tough love. “You done fretted long enough. You got to stop or I’m pure done wid you. I come here to tell you how I feel about de way you’s a-actin.” Mary goes on to live a full life, pushing memories of July out of her consciousness despite her suffering. She never stops loving July, and when he reappears after a twenty-year absence with a suitcase full of money and a mouth full of sweet words, she was “paralyzed with joy and with misery.”
As the novel draws to a close, Mary’s son Unex returns to Blue Brook Plantation. These scenes are among some of the powerful in the book. Unex’s wife died after giving birth to their baby, and he brings the wee one home to his mother, hoping that Mary can help the sickly, frail little girl live. Unex has become extremely weak on the cold, wet trip, and although Mary is delighted beyond words to see him, she knows something is wrong. For several pages, Peterkin writes of Mary’s growing awareness of Unex’s situation.
The writing is masterful. She inserts “Unex was sick” in a paragraph and goes on with other matters. A couple of paragraphs later, Peterkin writes, “Mary’s heart turned cold. Unex was sick.” On the following page, I read, “Unex was sick, bad sick,” and my heart hurt. Mary had sent the repentant July away, and now their son was dying. Peterkin writes, “Day after day melted into long black nights, and Unex grew steadily worse.” And then on the top of page 326, Peterkin’s first sentence is, “Death took him.”
Julie Peterkin won the Pulitzer for this amazing story of race, hypocrisy, love, gender issues, suffering, and triumph ninety years ago, and although social conditions have changed, basic human emotions have not. Blue Brook is gone, but love remains. As do death, birth, heartache, pain, and joy.
The book is timeless. And it was written by a Pulitzer Prize winning South Carolinian.