In Daniel Black’s Perfect Peace, Gus and Emma Jean Peace marry for less than perfect reasons. In 1930’s Arkansas, neither has expectations that they will be able to get a better marriage partner, so they start a family which is increasingly populated with boys. Emma Jean, desperate to have a girl child on whom she can lavish the love that she never had growing up, decides that her seventh male child will be raised as a girl, Perfect Peace. Miraculously, her plan proceeds without incident until Perfect’s eighth birthday when Emma Jean decides that it is time to tell her son, their family, and their entire community that everyone’s favored little girl…isn’t.
Gus, Emma Jean and Perfect are the characters in the novel who are the most clearly portrayed. Emma Jean is wracked by insecurity and self-hatred instilled by her mother. It takes much of the novel to get at her reasoning for why she acted as she did, but it’s still not any easier to understand her motivation. Black seems to be hinting at the desperation that self-loathing causes, leaving Emma Jean with an overwhelming need to have a female child so that she can more happily recreate her own childhood; but she doesn’t have the foresight to see the limitations to her plan. Gus has always suffered in his family for being sensitive and likely to cry, but he has difficulty finding compassion for the change that his son has to face.
Perfect is left to suffer through the transition from the softer female world, where he felt special, to being one of the men, where he finds little support. His sexuality is forever suspect, and his family can only think to initiate him into manhood through means of brutality. The reactions by Perfect’s family and his community are sad, but in line with the gender roles and homophobia within family and community at that time, and sadly, even now. Black does an excellent job portraying this black community, their church life, the interconnectedness of their friendships, and their feuds. There are many storylines among the supporting characters—most of which were of interest to me, but there were too many characters to give each of them more than a cursory overview. The characterizations and dialogue suffered in those places.
Perfect Peace is an ambitious novel, tackling a number of complex issues – perception of skin tone and self-loathing in the black community, gender identity, nature vs. nurture, faith, poverty, limited education, and homophobia,—just to name a few. It struggles a bit under the weight of those ambitions, and is particularly hindered by a large cast of characters, and a wide focus that diffuses what had the potential to be an even more powerful novel. Yet, it is still a novel that I enjoyed reading, and one that offered quite a bit of food for thought. I wish the author had explored more deeply. Black might have accomplished this with fewer characters (particularly if there were less brothers, of whom I had a hard time keeping track). While the story is not without flaws, I would be hard pressed to dismiss such a bold and original accounting on a subject fraught with tension.
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