Scarlet Sister Mary.

Julia Peterkin’s Scarlet Sister Mary won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1929, an award that apparently engendered some controversy, as the jury’s chairperson recommended a different book (John Rathbone Oliver’s Victim and Victor) and resigned in protest when Peterkin won. The historical record on this is spotty, and it’s unclear if Burton resigned because he disagreed with the choice, because he was embarrassed after he’d made public statements indicating Oliver’s book was going to win, or for other reasons. Of course, history has had its say on both titles, as Oliver’s book is long out of print and Peterkin’s is barely in it; neither has achieved any sort of lasting critical or popular acclaim. In the case of Peterkin’s novel, I think it’s easy to see why, because the book is so horribly out of date in its portrayal of Gullah people – African-Americans in the low country of South Carolina and Georgia, descended from slaves, with a creole unique to the region – as written by a white woman.

Scarlet Sister Mary profiles the title character, a Gullah woman who marries a ne’er-do-well in her community after he gets her pregnant – in and of itself a scandal in their church – and then abandons her. Rather than settle for a life of solitude, Mary chooses “pleasure” over fidelity to an absent husband, bearing many more children – even as her eldest son abandons her too – and constantly fighting the scorn and opprobrium of her peers and elders, two of whom serve as surrogate parents, within their church-centered village. Mary’s faith is largely secondary within the story to her desire to be a member in good standing of the church, and Peterkin doesn’t condemn her for her sexual liberation; the minister and his haughty wife are unsympathetic characters whose piety is merely a cloak for their sense of superiority over Mary and others outside of the flock.

Peterkin tries to replicate the creole of the Gullah in the dialogue in the book, but coming from the pen of a white author, the language is painful to read because it seems so much like caricature – even if, at the time, the author intended for it to be faithful rather than mocking. The ultimate effect of this rendition makes the characters seem like yokels, not just uneducated but primitive, which I doubt was Peterkin’s goal but is hard to avoid through the lenses of a reader nearly 90 years after the book’s publication.

That broaches the main question around Scarlet Sister Mary: How on earth did this trifling, unimpressive book manage to win a prestigious literary prize that, at the time, was almost exclusively given to novels by and about white people? Was the book seen at the time as a sympathetic portrait of poor African-Americans? Or as a feminist work because of its depiction of a woman who lives independently and ignores societal mores about women’s roles and sexuality? Or was it that the panel didn’t like Oliver’s book, which depicts a priest defrocked because of his drinking – similar to Oliver’s own experiences as a priest who left the clergy because he was gay – and thus chose Peterkin’s book because it was handy?

If you didn’t already get that I don’t recommend wasting your time on Scarlet Sister Mary, the only adaptation the book seems to have received was a stage show in 1930 starring Ethel Barrymore in blackface. History has consigned Peterkin’s book to the dustbin and I’m not surprised.

Next up: Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise.

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