Monday, July 05, 2021

Angela Jackson-Brown's When Stars Rain Down explores coming-of-age in a segregated, Depression-era Georgia town

Angela Jackson-Brown’s When Stars Rain Down is a Southern historical novel I’ve posted about here before. Once I got the opportunity to read it, the story consumed my attention for a full day and a half. It whisked me right out of my own time and into the viewpoint of Opal Pruitt, a girl of nearly eighteen whose coming of age in the small, segregated town of Parsons, Georgia, gets complicated.

It’s the summer of 1936, and Opal has never kept company with boys before. Miss Birdie, her Granny who raised her after her mother left, won’t allow it. But two different young men she has known for years begin stirring up unexpected romantic feelings. The “Colored” and white residents of Parsons stay pretty much separate, although the elderly white widow, Miss Peggy, who employs both Granny and Opal as housekeepers, treats them both like family, and the two groups attend the Founder’s Day celebration every year.

When local KKK members decide to ride through Opal’s neighborhood, Colored Town, one night, the property destruction and subsequent brutality forces them all into a reckoning. Opal’s large, close-knit family is divided on what to do: should they trust in God and look out for one another, or should they retaliate and risk more violence?

Opal is an endearing character I admired and wanted to protect. Like other Southern girls of her age, she respects her elders (replying “yes, ma’am” to her Granny’s requests) but knows they don’t have all the answers. Opal takes pride in her cooking and cleaning work, which she enjoys, and in her beautiful homemade clothes, stitched from patterns shared by Miss Peggy. The story addresses racial tensions head-on, including the pain inflicted on Black people by well-intentioned but clueless white folks.

The characters’ joys and warm sense of community – Opal has a strong support system – also spring from the page. Many elements combine to enfold readers in the setting of Depression-era Georgia: the oppressive heat, the local vernacular, the smell of peaches and barbecue, and the thrill of the crowd as they see baseball star Satchel Paige play in a Negro League exhibition game. One favorite character is Miss Lobelia, the “hoodoo woman,” who has difficulty convincing Opal that her medicine doesn’t go against Christian ways.

When Stars Rain Down has themes obviously relevant for today, and it also speaks to the value of people listening to one another, and to what their own heart is telling them.

The novel was published by Thomas Nelson in April.

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