“When Stars Rain Down”
Author: Angela Jackson-Brown
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Price: $17.00 (Paper)
1930s Small-Town South Setting for Dramatic Novel
Angela Jackson-Brown is a writer to watch. After degrees from Troy and Auburn she took the MFA from Spaulding and now teaches at Ball State in Indiana. She has a previous novel, “Drinking from a Bitter Cup,” a volume of poetry, “House Repairs,” and has written a number of successful plays.
“When Stars Rain Down” is an expansive novel –some 358 pages—but also compressed in time, all the action taking place in a few weeks in the summer of 1936 in Parsons, a fictional small town outside of Atlanta.
The narrator, a 17-year-old African-American girl, Opal Pruitt, put me in mind of Celie, the narrator of Alice Walker’s fine novel, “The Color Purple,” with her honest and trustworthy reporting.
Opal works alongside her mother as a domestic in the household of the elderly Peggy Ketchums, her daughter, Corinne, and Corinne’s son, Jimmy Earl, who is home for the summer from his studies at UGA in Athens.
From the first page, the talk in Colored Town, a close-knit community of some 30 families, is of the upcoming Founder’s Day in Parsons. Jim Crow is solidly, viciously, in place but black and white alike look forward to the celebration.
Jackson-Brown, like many another novelist, moves the incidents, one crisis after the next, towards this event. The characters speak of it, make plans, buy clothes, and prepare food for the big day. The reader thinks, correctly, that Founder’s Day will be the day tensions and quarrels in the community come to a head, a climax, perhaps the grand catastrophe.
Along the way, she deals with a series of issues: racism, teenage love, the death of our elders.
These issues are not just talked through. Jackson-Brown the dramatist presents them in a series of carefully crafted scenes, almost one-act plays. Once in a while, one reads a novel and can already see the film to be made from it.
One powerful set piece involves the KKK. One Sunday night they raid Colored Town. There is no provocation, no spurious rumors of white woman assaulted, none of that. They do it out of meanness and to cause terror.
Opal’s grandmother keeps a coop of chickens, pets she loves and would never kill for food or any other reason. The Klan, local white men well known to everyone, set fire to the coop, burning all her hens to death. Opal tells us “the sounds those chickens made as they died in the blaze set by those Klansmen will live in my heart forever.”
One Klansman announces “We own this countrysides...They may call this Colored Town but this here’s white man’s territory. We owned this land when they were chained up like yard dogs.”
The men of Colored Town are enraged. They are armed, and would fight, but race war might ensue and they have to acknowledge, painfully, their helplessness. Opal knows they felt “less than human…useless when it came to protecting …us.”
Opal and the reader wish the Klansmen in hell but Granny, with saintly forbearance, objects. “As Christians, we want everybody to find their way to God.” “We don’t wish eternal death on nobody. Them chickens meant a lot to me but another man’s soul will always outrank some critter.”
Since Opal is going on 18, young love is also a major theme. She and the white boy, Jimmy Earl, grew up together. Opal recalls: “…. he always treated me like a little sister. It never mattered that he was white and I was Colored.” This is a recurring motif in Southern fiction; as pre-pubescent children, they were, without tension, close friends, but there are strong, warm, dangerous feelings there. A more likely suitor is Cedric, the son of their preacher.
Several of the supporting cast are wonderful creations. Miss Lovenia, a 97-year-old hoodoo/ conjure woman, if she were a character on stage, would steal the show, and there is a nice cameo appearance by the famed pitcher Satchel Paige.
In Parsons not all whites are awful. There are some well-meaning and truly GOOD white people—the town doctor, a naïve debutante, Miss Lori Beth Parsons, of the founding family, even the relatively sensitive new sheriff. Even inside the Ketchums family there are both decent folk and drooling monsters. But, it is agreed, they can be of little help. They do not, CANNOT understand how blacks feel, nor can they be counted on to stand up against their society. The black folks know how the whites, if pressed by demands for school integration, voting rights, housing equity, intermarriage, would react.
Black folks will have to stick together, persevere, and move forward.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.