Red Clay and Roses
by S.K. Nicholls
A Different Kind of Book Review
Melissa set the tray of coffee mugs, sugar bowl and creamer on the table, and quickly began to pour the coffee. Her hands shook a bit and she missed Maggie’s cup by a hair. Maggie cocked an eyebrow in wonder. Mary was fixing plates of mini-scones and cookies for them to nibble on, oblivious to her cousin’s anxiety. This was their first book club meeting, although Melissa wondered if a book club could have as few as three people and still be a club. She told herself it didn’t matter. Now that she and Maggie were living in town, it would be a way for the three cousins to see each other regularly.
“Well, I can’t wait to talk about the book we read for tonight.” Mary put the plates of goodies on the table and sat down. Both Melissa and Maggie paused in mid-sip of their coffee. They didn’t think Mary was that much of a reader. She hadn’t even seemed that interested in reading the book Maggie had suggested: Red Clay and Roses by S.K. Nicholls.
“I loved this book,” Mary went on, while adding two teaspoons of sugar and some cream to her coffee. “I mean the story of Moses and Althea, Sybil and Nathan. It was all so sad, so tragic, and it all happened.”
Maggie had planned to start the meeting with a brief overview of the book, and she had even prepared questions in case her cousins failed for words. But Mary was charging ahead.
“And the detail in the book. I felt like I could go back to that time and know exactly how to find the old house, the beauty salon, the juke joint, the swamp.”
“Ah … ” Maggie wanted to interject. Mary had a tendency to rule over discussions, but the book club was her idea. “I agree. I was impressed by the detail of her journey in the Introduction, almost like she was recording the trip as she traveled.”
“I didn’t read the Introduction.” Mary took a bite out of a vanilla creme scone. “I didn’t read the Conclusion either.”
Maggie’s mouth fell open and then shut it when Melissa gave her a sideways glance.
“Well, I read the whole book,” Melissa said, placing emphasis on the word “whole” and narrowing her eyes at Mary. “The point of a book club is to read the book.”
Mary shrugged. “I started to read those parts, but they were kind of slow-going. I wanted to get to the meat of the book. I had read some reviews online so I knew there was a diamond in the rough there.”
Melissa sighed. “Well, how can we discuss the book if you haven’t read it all?”
Maggie squirmed. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Five minutes into it and they’re already starting to argue. She cleared her throat and braced herself.
“Melissa’s right. I mean, the flow of the Introduction and the Conclusion bothered me too; there was so much detail and I got lost a couple of times.”
Melissa nodded. “It was the same way for me. I don’t even know if those parts of the book are necessary.”
“Oh, they are necessary to the book as a whole.” Maggie grabbed the vanilla creme scone from her plate. Mary had already stolen Melissa’s. “Even though she has a disclaimer at the beginning, making it clear that the book is based on facts, it’s still important to know how she comes upon these facts and then to bring it all into present day. After all that happened to Althea, Moses, Sybil, and Nathan, some resolution was necessary. She couldn’t just end it with … .”
“Sure,” Melissa interrupted. She picked up a shortbread cookie, seemingly unaware that the vanilla creme scones were all gone. “I understand what you are saying. It would have been different if I hadn’t read the Conclusion and found out what happened later.”
Mary’s head jerked up. “What happened later? You mean, it didn’t end with …”
Melissa swerved back to face Mary. “No, if you had read the whole book, Mary, you would know.”
Maggie jumped up and began refilling their coffee mugs. Tensions are rising, she thought to herself. Please God, don’t make me regret this.
“You don’t need to get testy, Melissa. I started to read the Conclusion, but it seemed to me that the author had finished telling the story of Sybil and Nathan, so I just put it down.” Mary’s voice was soft but earnest. She didn’t want to argue. She had actually loved much of Red Clay and Roses. “Does it really matter? I mean, I loved the core of the book. Once Moses started talking, relating the tragedy of his daughter Althea, and then the forbidden love between Sybil and Nathan. It’s an incredibly powerful story in and of itself. And that it was a true story made it so compelling.”
“Did it have to be a true story for you to like it?” Maggie felt intrigued by Mary’s view of the book.
“No, actually, the author’s writing would have swept me into that world of the pre-Civil Rights South if it had been fiction. It was really the level of detail, the sense of place, and the dialogue that made it all come together. Have either of you read An American Tragedy by Dresier?”
Maggie and Melissa put down their coffee and stared at Mary. Maggie wanted to call Randy and ask him if there was a pod with Mary’s body in it somewhere in her house.
“Well, Red Clay and Roses is similar in that both books are based on true events, but both are also fictionalized for the sake of the story. And both have this level of detail that makes the story play out in your mind as if you were really there, with the characters, traveling with them, eavesdropping on them. It doesn’t matter whether it’s fiction, fact, or some hybrid like faction.”
Melissa tried to stop herself but couldn’t help but snort coffee through her nose when Mary said “faction.” She realized that despite all the years they’ve known each other, she actually didn’t know Mary very well. At least, not this side of Mary.
“Ok, well, how would you rate the book?” Maggie pulled over a napkin and took a pen from the counter behind her.
“Five,” said Mary.
“How can you give her a five when you didn’t read the whole book?” Melissa sat back in her chair, arms crossed. “I give it a three because I think the author could have done better with the Introduction and Conclusion.”
“Christ.” Mary scowled and took a sip of coffee. She felt her cousins’ eyes on her. She liked surprising them from time to time. Everyone thought they knew her because she was outspoken and gregarious. But all those nights when Christopher was away. What the hell did they think she was doing? Playing with herself? Well, there was some of that, but for the most part she read. “What’s your rating, Maggie?”
Maggie paused. She was torn. There was much she liked, even loved, about the book. Sure, it had its flaws but so did some bestsellers she had read. “Four.”
Mary nodded. “Then four for me, too. That book is a diamond in the rough.”
Maggie looked over at Melissa and waited. Her cousin picked up another cookie and quietly said, “Four.” Maggie smiled. Maybe this book club would work after all.
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)