On The Root’s Top 15 for 2014
Saint Monkey follows the lives of two girls growing up in Eastern Kentucky’s Black community shortly after the Korean War. Saint Monkey won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction, and was the 2015 Honor Book of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Saint Monkey was published in 2014 by W.W. Norton and Company.
I see grief every day here on Queen Street. I see it in the hunch of a man who has lost his woman and his job in Cincinnati and come back down to Kentucky after the winter, his head permanently bent by the pelt of hard snow in the absence of a hat. In the dark undereyes of the girl who dusts the ceilings at Huggins Dime Store, the girl who, seven months gone, climbed into the woods of Mt. Sterling to push out her stillborn baby girl, begotten of the frog-eyed, otherwise-married lawyer old enough to be her own father. In the slow gait of a church-hatted woman whose only soft young son has been away to the war and come home to someone else’s country with a stump where a leg should be, his military pension only half that of the White soldiers’ and therefore inadequate to buy all the liquor he needs on an empty Saturday night. I see it, but the adults all around me say grief is a thing unknown to children.
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.