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6 Jul 2024

History and healing: A review of ‘When Stars Rain Down’

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July 6, 2024 Category: Entertainment Posted by:

By Constance Garcia-Barrio

In the summer of 1936, when the country cooked in scalding heat—Arkansas hit 120 degrees. But in Parsons, Georgia, the setting for Angela Jackson-Brown’s novel, “When Stars Rain Down,” (Thomas Nelson & Sons Publishers, 2021) the scorching temperatures seem like a lit match near a powder keg of racial tension.

Much of the action takes place in Colored Town, Parsons’ small Black community of closely spaced houses:

“On any given night you might hear soft quarrels, the sounds of lovemaking, or the giggles and laughter that were just natural sounds to hear among those of us who lived in Colored Town.”

Author Angela Brown-Jackson teaches a fiction class.
Photo: Constance Garcia-Barrio

Readers see the story through the eyes of Opal Pruitt, a thin, attractive, dark-skinned girl. Opal, almost 18, has long since left school. “I always mixed-up letters, and I could hardly add two plus two,” she says in the story. But Opal shines in other ways, thanks in part to tutelage from Granny, her maternal grandmother. Granny reared Opal after Opal’s mother, Granny’s daughter, left her behind. Opal hand-sews stylish clothes, whips up tasty meals from scraps, and cleans house like an army of one.

Now Opal takes on tasks that Granny, slowed by age, no longer does in the home of Miss Peggy, the ailing matriarch of a relatively well-off white family in Parsons. Miss Peggy’s middle-aged daughter, Miss Corrine, has suffered from mental illness ever since her marriage to Earl Ketchums failed.

The story begins as Opal finishes preparing a veritable feast for Jimmy Earl Ketchums, Miss Peggy’s grandson and Miss Corrine’s son. Jimmy Earl is returning home for the summer after studying pharmacology in Atlanta.

Any hopes Jimmy Earl has for a peaceful time are soon shattered. He has split loyalties. Skeeter Ketchums and Rafe Ketchums, his cousin and uncle, respectively, have always stood by Jimmy Earl because of his largely absent father. But Skeeter and Rafe are leaders of the local Ku Klux Klan. On the other hand, Jimmy Earl has known Granny all his life because she has worked for his grandmother, Miss Peggy, since before he was born. In addition, he was virtually raised with Opal, a few years younger than he is, because she always came along when Granny cleaned Miss Peggy’s house. Thus torn, Jimmy Earl tips off the pastor of Colored Town’s church about the Klan’s plan to attack the community.

The Klan burns down one man’s barn and sets a cross aflame in a deacon’s yard. They also set fire to Granny’s chicken coop, destroying it and burning her beloved chickens alive. When Klan members try to bash in Granny’s door, Jimmy Earl persuades them to stop.

The outraged men of Colored Town, including Opal’s uncles, confront the sheriff about the destruction and terror. The sheriff promises to take decisive action next time.

Weeks later, someone knocks Opal unconscious one night in an attempted rape. At first, she can’t recall her attacker’s face. When she recovers her memory, all hell breaks loose.

The story is spiced with quirky characters. Longtime Colored Town resident Mr. Tote serenades the whole community on summer nights with tunes from his harmonica. Miss Corinne, though mentally ill and living with a room full of doll clothes and picture books, pulls herself together to help Opal who, at 13, gets her first period when the other women aren’t home.

Opal has some odd ways. Miss Peggy’s new Maytag washer is too hard on clothes, so says Opal, that she still does the laundry with a washboard and a tub.

The novel has well-paced action and lean dialogue, thanks to Jackson-Brown’s background as a poet and playwright. Poetry packs meaning into its line and on the stage each word must carry its weight, says Jackson-Brown, an associate professor in creative writing at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Some scenes tackle controversial issues like interracial sexual attraction. Opal feels drawn to Jimmy Earl, who’s white. She has a dream where he licks peach juice off her lips. At the same time, she likes tall, brown, handsome Cedric Perkins, who wants to pitch for the Atlanta Black Crackers, a professional Negro League baseball team. Portraying people of different races being drawn to each other simply acknowledges reality, Jackson-Brown said.

Some thorny themes emerge in the novel because they give Jackson-Brown a chance to delve into them. Religion is one such issue.

“Most of my characters grapple with spirituality,” Jackson-Brown said in an interview. “It’s a way for me to explore it [within myself].”

In the novel, Jackson-Brown looks at spirituality through Miss Lovenia, a near-centenarian. Miss Lovenia uses herbs, teas, poultices, juju bags and rituals to heal the sick and put right difficult situations. Some Colored Town residents, including Opal and Granny, distrust Miss Lovenia’s “hoodoo.” But in helping her for a short time, Opal becomes less certain about rejecting Miss Lovenia, even if she’s embarrassed by Miss Lovenia’s advice to an older woman with a wayward younger husband. Among other things, Miss Lovenia suggests that the woman use water from washing her underarms and “lady parts” to help rein him in.

Mothering also gets a thoughtful look in the story.

“Having never had a mother, I often explore mother figures in my novels,” Jackson-Brown said, who met her birth family as an adult.

While Jackson-Brown spoke about the catharsis of writing fiction, she hopes for healing for her readers as well. Such healing can happen, according to author-psychologist Keith Oatley, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, who has studied the effects of reading fiction. Novels and stories can help readers process fiction’s emotional content and solve life’s problems indirectly, he says.

“I’m giving myself and my readers hope,” Jackson-Brown said.

Another kind of healing could result from reading works like “When Stars Rain Down” that portray America’s racism with honesty. In a note to the reader about the use of the “N” word, Jackson-Brown writes that resolution can happen when we stare “… at our collective history without blinking or flinching.”

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