Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin, 1928, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929.
I was fortunate to learn of this book from the list of winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Scarlet Sister Mary was written by Julia Peterkin who was the mistress of a former plantation in South Carolina named Lang Syne. She had lived on the plantation for 30 years prior to writing Scarlet Sister Mary. She gives an account of the former slaves and their descendants who once were the property of the plantations of South Carolina. In Peterkin’s book, the slaves, though emancipated in the Civil War, stayed on the plantation and worked for the owner or tried being share croppers. The African-American workers even lived in the former slave quarters. Scarlet Sister Mary was the daughter of a slave who had been born in the quarters. The book gives a fascinating glimpse into the lives of these people who were free to leave their old life but chose, in many cases, to stay on the land and do the work they knew. In Peterkin’s book, the plantation was very isolated and this may account for why the former slaves found it easier to stay where they were rather than venture out into the world.
One of the themes of Scarlet Sister Mary is the story of some young men and women leaving the plantation and seeking work, education, and sometimes pleasure in the world. In Mary’s case, her husband July left her shortly after they were married. Mary had a baby boy to take care of. July does not return for 20 years and when he does come back, she won’t take him back. Sister Mary gets the “Scarlet” added to her name because of the scarlet sins she commits as she goes through life supporting herself and her child with short-term relationships with a variety of men. In the process, they provide her with eight more children.
Because of her sins which the little community knows about, Mary is put out of her church by a vote of the deacons. Her struggle to finally be saved again, by vote of the deacons, forms much of her story. However, her desire to be a good Christian is set against her beliefs in the old ways, dating back to slavery times and possibly back to Africa. The people in the village believed in black magic, spells, conjurers, and other superstitions that somehow co-existed with their Christian beliefs. Mary’s struggle was between these two forces. She had a love-charm made Daddy Cudjoe that brought many men to her and perpetuated her sinful life. At the end of the book, Mary experiences another religious conversion brought on by the death of her son. But even after her conversion and re-acceptance into the church, Mary is unwilling to give up her love charm. Daddy Cudjoe asks her to give back the powerful “conjure rag” now that she is going to quit with men. Though scarlet no more, Sister Mary refuses and says it is all she has to keep her young. Her struggles with men and the struggle between living as a good Christian woman and a woman with special powers continues.
Scarlet Sister Mary is interesting, in part, because the dialog in the book is written as the people spoke. This seems authentic because Julia Peterkin lived around the descendants of slaves on her own plantation. She would have heard how they spoke and capture it in her novel. The message of Scarlet Sister Mary seems to be that Black women have had to be strong in many of their family situations. Mary had to be strong but also rely on her community and church as she raised her children. Scarlet Sister Mary gave me some good insights into what it might have been like for the freed slaves and their descendants in the years following the Civil War. The effects of slavery were not easily or quickly overcome.