On Sunday, April 5, 1936, a tornado devastated Tupelo, Mississippi. More than 200 people were reported dead, and the hundreds of African-American casualties were not even counted. The stories and folklore surrounding the storm flourished for decades—a woman found a baby in a crepe myrtle, a cow flew upside down, etc. In her second novel, Minrose Gwin (The Queen of Palmyra) harnesses the intensity of the tornado and pieces together a dual narrative of survival.
Dovey Grand’homme is an old African-American washwoman, and Jo McNabb is a white 15-year-old schoolgirl. The Grand’homme and McNabb families are connected by more than just the intimate laundry that Dovey sorts through weekly—they are also irrevocably linked by a despicable act. Son McNair, Jo’s older brother, raped Dovey’s granddaughter, resulting in a light-skinned baby boy named Promise. During the storm, both Promise and Jo’s baby brother are lost. When Jo finds a baby in her yard, she assumes it is her brother, and the premise is set for this impressive novel.
Promise takes on the page-turning pacing of a mystery while remaining solidly literary. Gwin’s writing is as precise as it is entertaining, and she creates unique rhythms for Dovey and Jo, giving each a distinct pulse. Their memories, supported by a great cast of nurses, neighbors and relatives, bring great richness to the story.
The aid available to the African-American community was obviously insufficient, and literally countless lives were lost for the sake of keeping segregation intact during immediate relief efforts. Humans may have the ability to overcome disaster, but as Gwin illustrates here, segregation neutralizes humanity.