May 2016

Donna Miele


The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson

Crystal Wilkinson's second novel, Birds of Opulence, is a lyrical, lush new take on slavery's legacy among women in the twentieth century, also tackling the mental and emotional issues that readers will universally recognize in the twenty-first: our abuses, large and small, of those we love the most; how easily we disregard the small deviations that begin to tell the story of mental illness; the scars that our anxieties and self-abnegation leave on our children.

Four generations of women confront life and love in small-town Opulence, weaving their family's portion of a southern black American community's fabric. There is beauty in the opening scene, in which baby girl Yolanda is born to Lucy Goode Brown among the squash vines, midwifed by grandmother Tookie and great-grandmother Miss Minnie. "Imagine a tree, a bird in the tree, the hills, the creek, a possum, the dog chasing the possum. Imagine yourself a woman who gathers stories in her apron. The sun peeped through the silver maples the day I was born."

There is undeniable charm in Opulence's typical households, where each matron is famous for a different comfort food:

Old women beam smiles under Sunday hats when a lad from Lancaster or Harrodsburg says loud enough for all to hear, 'I drove all the way from Lexington just for a taste of Miss Christine's buttermilk pie.' And the young man saunters up to the table where Miss Christine stands proudly behind her pies, puts his hands up in the air, and says, 'Thank the Lord and Jesus there's still some left.' Each of the women, if they are worth their salt, has suitors, not in search of their womanly wiles, but in search of some delicacy that they only taste once or twice a year at this time.

Wilkinson interweaves the setting's darkness into the narrative so gracefully that we feel the inevitability of its presence alongside the beauty, just as we must in life. Squash vines figuratively choke Lucy in an episode of postpartum depression that digs in and never lets go. Francine, another lonely character, keeps her table groaning under more food than she and her sole daughter could ever eat, because this is the way in which Opulence measures the worth of a woman.

Women's sexuality and related societal power imbalances are treated with admirable subtlety, without losing either the graceful narrative lilt or a strong sense of humanity among the characters. Tookie, the self-effacing, fretful mother that everyone loves and loves to protect, most strongly portrays a legacy of rape that implicates many generations of family and community. As a young mother, it took years for Tookie to live down the stigma of a first pregnancy at age twelve. Her mother, matriarch Minnie Mae Goode, makes sure that the public knows she never condoned her daughter's sexual precocity. She also spends a lifetime wrestling with regret, trying to justify to herself her punishment of Tookie: "She was glad that the baby was born at night when nobody could see. [...] Wanted Tookie to go through every single bit of suffering, her punishment for what she'd done."

The real events behind Tookie's first pregnancy at age twelve are never publicly revealed or discussed by the family, though the reader gets the picture in flashbacks. The real events never mattered to Minnie Mae. A twelve-year-old daughter's pregnancy was its own proof of a woman's sin, a family's shame. Her physical abuse of a pregnant child, her ongoing abuse of a teen mother through self-righteous disappointment and shame, are portrayed without searching for abstract explanations. Wilkinson wisely lets Minnie Mae stumble for explanations:

She kept beating and beating, trying to beat Tookie back into good, looked down at red ridges rising up on her pregnant child's legs and back and kept beating. Tookie a mound of whipped flesh with big old sad eyes. She still remembers them old eyes. Was it fear or hate? Ain't it a mama's job to protect? Protect who? That's the question that rears its head now.

Wilkinson's boldest character statement may be Mona, Francine's daughter, a woman-child fascinated with sex, assaulted by sex, confronting the unbalanced dynamic between men and women, and trying to control it rather than withdraw from it. Assaulted by a white schoolmate, she allows herself to be overcome. "Not because of the pleasure, because there is none, but because she recognizes something iniquitous." It's striking, sobering, and painfully truthful that Mona and Yolanda in this scene are still in elementary school.

Wilkinson does not neglect the men who sustain these women, who cherish them and hurt along with them, even though they never know the details of women's lives, but the men play a decidedly supporting role. Joe Brown, Lucy's husband, who left a city life to marry in the country "had already learned how to blend into this river of crazy women": he works patiently, loves quietly, and remains loyal even as his wife's mind slowly disintegrates. Yolanda's brother Kee Kee (Kevin):

[A]lways needed a woman's attention, though the attention from the women in his family seemed to stop when his sister was born. He went from the wonderful and glorious Kee Kee Brown to big brother Kevin, carrier of diapers, peeler of potatoes, assistant to his father as he fixed things.

The portrayal of a decent boy is concise, accurate, and simple. Carry the diapers he did, and thereafter resign himself to never regaining his fleeting "glorious" status. As he ends a phone call with his fiancée, "He thinks of the girl he's not sure he has, and he thinks of the child that Nadine is carrying. He daydreams of himself and a mother and child... The faceless woman he conjures by his side is smiling. Her head leans back into the sun, but he still can't see her."

While The Birds of Opulence contains big themes, the narrative never abandons the delicate treatment of character that makes the story sing. A lovely and accessible novel for readers interested in finding women they know, troubled, strong, and complex, on the page.

The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson
The University Press of Kentucky
ISBN: 978-0813166919
208 pages