A New Historicism Look at
Gloria Taylor Weinberg’s A homicide in Hooker’s Point
by Lynn Perretta
Who does not love just the feel of those two words? When you read them, you are likely to envision the sights and sensations that come from where you grew up and/or spent a great deal of your life – i.e. where you call home. Magazines love these types of stories, especially regional ones, because they bring the reader close to home. A good local color story will wrap you up in a warm blanket and feed you homemade mac & cheese casserole right from the oven.
If you love stories that feature local color, you can thank the post-Civil War era for them. They flourished in American literature as readers wanted stories that presented dialect, manners, and folklore. They wanted to construct places they would likely never get to visit, for example the American frontier, and feel the nostalgia of times passed. (1)
Now, that is not to say that local color stories do not have a dark side. Sometimes the things these stories bring up are the very things many would just as soon leave under the rug or in the closet. I know this well in the South, though I imagine every region and country has this to some degree or another. Many a story begins by never being told. I love these types of stories, however. I think I love them because they are the stories never told. Sure, they are a glimpse into the life you do not want to see. You would think that such stories would leave you alone and cold.
The good ones do not. No matter how dark the events of the story or how down the life is, you still feel that warmth and familiarity of the local story. It is not that the story is happy or nostalgic. The story tells us that we are not alone in what we know. In the darkness of secrets are a hundred people, holding hands. It is okay to love your locality, even if it harbors dark shadows, secrets, and an underside no one wants to see. When local color fiction can bring you to that feeling – it is a good read.
A Homicide in Hooker’s Point is one of those reads. The story is fiction, drawing upon the remembered locations of a childhood in Florida along Lake Okeechobee. The events are not real, but the feelings each draws out of the reader are. Each fictionalized occurrence follows in a logical pattern of A to B to C, so that we wonder if we really are reading a story and not an account whispered in secret because the bearer could not keep quiet anymore. Good local, Southern fiction should be this way. It should feel less like a story and something that is whispered to you and a confidence that only you and the author share.
From the opening of the book, the reader is brought into the world of Clewiston, Florida and the pain of a little girl named Vicki. It continues through the heat of a kitchen, and the realization that outside the September heat would be no better. It carries through a late summer breeze filled with the smoke of burning cane fields and the touching kindness of a young man whose seen nothing but discrimination from white folk.
The first two chapters carry us through a touching narrative of a little girl’s loss and another woman’s decision. As the story captures locations, scents, sounds, and people, the reader is captured in the moment. The story here is at its richest and most poignant. At one point, the story stops a moment to present history and fact. This moment, with hard numbers and figures, does not flow with the same magic as the rest of the narrative, but in retrospect, it is necessary to frame the rest of the story that follows. It is a short-lived breakaway, and when it gives way to the rest of the story and the characters, the color returns the story and it draws us in once again to the lives and times of its characters.
A Homicide in Hooker’s Point has many poignant moments that bring to life the characters and setting. When young Vicki laments to her grandmother why she will not be having a party, because only “white trash” live in Hooker’s Point, her grandmother’s response is true to heart and to the narrative voice of the story:
“We ain’t no kind of trash, Victoria Bayle. No kind, you hear me? We’re just poor folks, strugglin’ to get by is all. Being poor ain’t nothing to be proud of, but there ain’t nothing shameful about it neither.”
In that, I can hear the thick and shaking voice of an old woman, proud and scared – scared for what life will bring this new generation, afraid that her granddaughter will be bound to the same cycle of poverty as she and her daughter. Grandmother ends the scene just as beautifully, not by speaking of her fears, but of the hope she has for her granddaughter, and how special the child in her arms really is.
This mix of struggle and hope is important to the story. The world is not black and white. Eric Magruder is a character that we should hate; because he is every dark thing that we do not want to admit exists: an abuser, a bully, and a drunkard. He is also a broken man, full of good intentions and bad implementation. He is flawed and pained and we feel sorry for him, even as we know what fate awaits him – must wait for him. This is the beauty a story of local color holds for us. We may not want to admit that the things that hide in our shadows is a part of our world. These stories, however, bring to light the dichotomy that makes up existence in our local world.