I’m not sure why Saint Monkey is the title of Jacinda Townsend’s debut novel about two girls coming of age in 1950’s small Southern town other than it is catchy and an infrequent-nickname for one of the characters. Then again, I’m not sure I could come up with any better title for this insightful, aching look at friendship and anti-friendship, first loves, ruined love, passion and disdain, achievement and disappointment. Perhaps Saint Monkey as a title is just amorphous enough to contain a hint of the contents of this Pandora’s box of a book.
Audrey and Caroline live across the street from one another in racially-divided Mt. Sterling, Kentucky. Both have dreams of leaving the dirt road on which they live far behind. Audrey’s talented father is gone and her mother is mostly absent but Audrey is able to both lose and find herself in her music.
Caroline, aka Pookie, the Saint Monkey of the title, loses both of her parents early in the novel to a horrible situation. She then becomes the de facto mother of her sister and seeks her own way out by romancing the lean, hungry teen-age boys who inhabit her world.
Townsend’s poetic prose expresses the dreamy yearnings of what it is to be a small town girl with big city dreams.
Still, my granddaddy built me this porch swing the week after my daddy died, not because he thought I was grieving, but because he meant to keep me amused. “Keep Audrey occupied,” he told people. “Keep her around the house with her dress down and her bloomers up.” Since my daddy died, Grandpap has begun to see me as a dry leaf in freefall, a wasted petal about to be crunched under a man’s foot. He wants me to forget all the boys of Montgomery County and take studies in typing, to let go the idea of marrying a town sweetheart and become, instead, a woman of the city in a store-bought dress and nylons, with my own bedboard and bankbook. I’m supposed to fly and dream about all that, sitting here in this swing. He painted it white, whiter even than the side of this house, whose thin coat is peeling to expose the aged black wood underneath. He painted the wood slats of this swing so white that when you stare at them for a time, they seem blue. Swing high, and the porch ceiling creaks where he riveted the screws: the grown people who walk by warn me. “Hey gal, it ain’t a playground swing,” they say. For them, for their limitations, I stop pumping my legs, and the creaking stops. But when they’ve faded down the walk, I fly high again.
In her review for the New York Times, Ayana Mathis compares Saint Monkey to the classic American novel by Zora Neale Hurston. “Caroline’s yearning recalls Janie, the young heroine of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” lying one afternoon under a blossoming pear tree, overwhelmed by sensuality and possibility and driven toward the fulfillment of what she senses life might offer. That Janie’s life does not go as well as she hopes, that it does in fact take a tragic turn, does not eclipse her capacity for joy or hope.” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/books/review/saint-monkey-by-jacinda-townsend.html?_r=0
Saint Monkey won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction awarded by the Society of American Historians in 2015.
Saint Monkey is a luminous and compelling novel that shines a bright light on neglected corners of the American past. The book brings to life a small Black community in the hardscrabble country of eastern Kentucky, a place in many ways a borderland: between the industrial future and the agricultural past, between the urban north and the Jim Crow South, and between the seeming complaisance of the 1950s and the seismic upheavals of the 1960s. Audrey Martin and Caroline (“Pookie”) Wallace, Townsend’s marvelous protagonists, reveal worlds of hope and hurt through their barbed, intense friendship. Her profoundly unsettling and profoundly humane vision—of ordinary Black women struggling to achieve safety and authenticity in the face of the extraordinary ruptures and insecurities that have for centuries beset Black lives in the Americas—is essential for our understanding not only of the African American experience but also of American history in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
I had the pleasure of meeting author Jacinda Townsend during the Kentucky Women Writers Conference in September and she was gracious enough to share a recipe with me. She calls it her “nasty” casserole and says it is “straight from the 1950s. My kids complain but they love it.”
1 package (16 ounces) frozen peas, thawed 1 package (16 ounces) frozen chopped broccoli, thawed and drained 1/2 package Velveta 3/4 cup milk 1 full sleeve of crackers 1/4 cup butter Add to Shopping List Directions 1 Pour milk into a crockpot or cheese melter; cut Velveta block into cubes and place into crockpot to melt. 2 Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 3 Bring peas and broccoli to a boil. 4 Melt butter in a saucepan; crumble crackers into melted butter and saute. 5 Put cooled peas and broccoli into a greased 2-qt. baking dish. Sprinkle crumbled crackers on top. 6 Pour melted Velveta and milk mixture over casserole until it is evenly covered. 7 Bake, uncovered, at 350° for 12-17 minutes or until bubbly. Yield: 4-6 servings.
Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk at Carnegie Hall would be a great one. //ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=daeandwritewo-20&marketplace=amazon®ion=US&placement=B000TETIC8&asins=B000TETIC8&linkId=RYLNSBUK6DC4TB6V&show_border=true&link_opens_in_new_window=true