Stranger Here Below, by Joyce Hinnefeld.
Her daddy told her, the night before she left, never to slip. He needn't have said anything; by then she was already expert at it. Live where they live, eat where they eat, learn where they learn -- but keep your eyes down. Do it all well, but not so well they think you're uppity. Let them know you aren't a threat. - from the ARC of Stranger Here Below, page 49 -
Mary Elizabeth Cox, a young black woman, is gifted academically and musically. Her fingers float over the piano keys and bring forth amazing classical music. When she arrives at Kentucky's Berea College in 1961 she soon discovers that her talent with music will bring her unwanted attention from the white professors and their wives, people who decide she is an exception to the common black student.
They reported on her perfect grade-point average before she began, every time. She was exceptional! A remarkable exception! Proof of something, surely of the rightness of the school's mission. Virginal and pure to boot. Studious. Accomplished on the piano, on which she played not race music, but the classics. - from the ARC of Stranger Here Below, page 125 -
Mary Elizabeth's college roommate is the outspoken and open-minded Amazing Grace Jansen ("Maze") from Appalachia. Maze is a talented weaver whose rich tapestries reflect her own unique personality. Although they differ in temperament and skin color, the two young women share a deeper connection. Both are daughters of damaged women -- Maze's mother Vista fights a crippling loneliness, and Mary Elizabeth's mother Sarah carries the scars of a childhood trauma which have forever disabled her. Both Maze and Mary Elizabeth are drawn to Sister Georgia who is the last remaining member of a small Shaker community, and whose history includes a short tenure as a professor at Berea College.
The name she signed on the Covenant was her new Shaker name, chosen, she said to remind her, always, of her place there at Pleasant Hill. It was the name of a renegade state and the home of an unnamed soldier, a child lost in the senseless battles of men, resting forever on the ground of these peaceful, God-fearing people. She would honor him and, at the same time, always remember her wayfaring status. Like him, she was a lost child, now home: Sister Georgia. - from the ARC of Stranger Here Below, page 170 -
Stranger Here Below is the story of these women -- three generations growing up in the South from the late nineteenth century through the turbulent Vietnam years of the late sixties. Joyce Hinnefeld tells their inter-linked stories in a nonlinear fashion, moving back and forth through time and from the multiple points of view of each character. Music plays a large role in the novel and serves as a backdrop to the each of the characters' lives: the hand-clapping, foot stomping dance of Sister Georgia's worship; the complex and challenging notes of Mary Elizabeth's classic compositions; and the country simplicity of Maze's hymns. As the threads of the novel come together, there is a rhythm and balance to the narrative which results in a rich, contemplative story of human connectedness.
Hinnefeld explores the unique beauty of women's friendships against the larger themes of race relations in the South and women's rights. Her prose is lush and lyrical; her characters tightly drawn and sensitively portrayed. As the novel unfurled, I was drawn into the lives of these extraordinary women more and more -- finding myself thinking of them even when I was not reading. Stranger Here Below is a sad novel, but one that is also filled with hope and renewal. It is a reflective and thoughtful book which demands quiet attention. Readers who are looking for a exquisitely written literary novel with an exceptional cast of characters will not want to miss this one.
Four and a half stars out of five.
Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".