Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground by T.R. Simon

I don't usually like to read second books in a series before I read the first book, but I made an exception for Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground, and I'm glad I did. I was immediately pulled into the mystery that the two main characters find themselves involved in, but this book turned out to be so much more than just a mere puzzle.

When Zora Neale Hurston was young, she lived with her family in a town called Eatonville, Florida, the first all black community in the United States. The story begins there one night in 1903 when Zora and her best friend Carrie Brown, both 12, discover two loose horses in the Hurston yard. Recognizing the horses as belonging to Mr. Polk, a mute neighbor, the two girls sneak out and head for his place to see what happened. There, they find Mr. Polk injured and a fire in his cabin. But Zora and Carrie aren't the only ones who noticed something happening, so did Old Lady Bronson, the town's conjure woman, who took charge of Mr. Polk's injuries, and to the absolute surprise of both girls, spoke to him in a strange language and heard him answer. When Zora presses Old Lady Bronson for answers about what she and Carrie just witnessed, the conjure lady makes a deal with her: if she keeps quiet about the night's events, she will tell Zora "a story worth hearing."

The story shifts back to 1855 and a young black girl named Lucia begins narrating her story. Leaving her Caribbean island home of Hispaniola with Prisca and her father Master Frederic, her white owners, Lucia finds herself living enslaved on a plantation in Florida named Westin. Up until moving to Florida, Lucia had been treated well by Master Frederic and was best friends with Prisca. But, three years later, Master Frederic has died and Prisca's stepmother decides to sell Lucia, claiming the plantation needed money and it was part of her marriage contract with Master Frederic that Lucia would be sold.

The story continues to alternate between Zora and Carrie's present and Lucia's life of slavery. Slowly, however, the two stories come together in a surprising way as Zora and Carrie learn the truth about Mr. Polk, Old Lady Bronson and their own connections to slavery and Eatonville's past, and that "history wasn't just something you read in a book. It was everything your life stood on. We who thought we were free from the past were still living it out." (pg 174)

Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground is a gripping coming of age work of historical fiction and Simon has done a stellar job bringing the characters, the time periods, and the setting to life. Carries is an intelligent, though somewhat cautious girl, while Zora is an impulsive, curious, and intelligent girl, and Old Lady Bronson knows when she finds the two girls at Mr. Polk's place that Zora won't be happy until she is told the truth about the night's events.

Simon goes easily from time period to time period without jarring the reader, ending each section with enough to really keep the reader going simply by igniting their curiosity to discover, like Zora, what is going on. 

And Eatonville? Setting in a novel is always important, but here so much of the action in this novel centers around the town of Eatonville, founded in 1887, that it actually becomes another important character as Lucia's 1855 story begins to merge with the event's of 1903 Eatonville. I can't say more or I'll give too much away and you definitely want to find out the answers on your own. 
Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground may be difficult for some readers. Simon tackles the brutality of slavery head on and without apology. This may make some white readers uncomfortable, but if you can get past you discomfort, there is a lot of painful truth to be found here. Prisca's stepmother and her children are classic examples of white attitudes about black people, but what is made clear is that this attitude persisted into the 20th century and, I am sad to say, even into 21th century. This is certainly a thought-provoking element in the novel and I hope people do think about it.

Do read Simon's short biography of Zora Neale Hurston at the back of the novel, and check out the timeline of her life. There is also an annotated bibliography of Hurston's work, and a list of children's books that were adapted from the folktales she collected.

You can find more information about the history of Eatonville, Florida HERE 

You can find a useful discussion guide prepared by the publisher, Candlewick Press, HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

And yes, I can't wait to read the first book, Zora & Me

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