Is it any more perfect that the latest installment in a series starring a young Zora Neale Hurston is out right before Banned Book Month? Zora Neale Hurston’s brilliant classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is both a staple on high school reading lists AND a book that’s landed on Banned and Challenged lists since 1997.
Zora & Me is the story of young Zora Neale Hurston and her best friend, Carrie. The year is 1903, and the two live with their families in Eatonville, Florida, in the first African-American city to be incorporated in the state. Even as a child, Zora is every bit the storyteller, the grand designer of adventures; Carrie likes to play it safer, but always follows Zora into an escapade – or a mystery. In this second novel, author T.R. Simon examines hate, white privilege, and history. It begins when Mr. Polk, their mute neighbor, is attacked and his horses set loose. When the girls go investigate and help Mr. Polk, they discover he can speak – he speaks to Old Lady Bronson, a woman rumored to be a conjure woman. When Mr. Polk breaks his silence, it sets other pieces to a long-unsolved puzzle into motion. The narrative shifts between the events in 1903 and the story of a Lucia, a young woman sold into slavery in 1855. In 1903, Zora and Carrie discover an abandoned plantation mansion on Mr. Polk’s property; at the same time, white men come to Eatonville and demand more of Mr. Polk’s land, claiming a right to it. Tensions rise, and the people of Eatonville prepare to stand up for themselves and their home. As the narratives move back and forth, the puzzle comes together and everything becomes heartbreakingly clear.
Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground is intense and raw, with brutal honesty about slavery and its aftermath. T.R. Smith writes about the roots of racial violence and the “enduring wounds of slavery” that persist to this day. Zora Neale Hurston is an intelligent, headstrong 12-year-old, and Carrie finds her strength and voice. They’re strong protagonists, strong African-American young women, and fully aware of the danger that whites present to them, even if slavery is now something they’re only hearing about: many parents were born into slavery, and freed as very young children. This generation knows that they weren’t “given” their freedom. They weren’t given anything: they will fight for everything that is theirs. Lucia, the third main character in The Cursed Ground, tells a sharp, painful story about family lost and found; about freedom taken; about people who would diminish a whole race’s humanity, and about discovering and defending one’s sense of self. It’s an incredible story. A biography of Zora Neale Hurston and a timeline of her life conclude this story. I hope to read more of Zora’s and Carrie’s adventures. This is definitely on my Newbery shortlist, and I hope it’s on a Coretta Scott King Award shortlist, too. It’s a must-add to historical fiction collections and would make a stellar African-American History Month reading assignment for classes.