Review of Mourner’s Bench by Meg Nola, Foreword Reviews
August 27, 2015
An inspiring mother-daughter tale set in the Civil Rights era Deep South, with religious overtones and headstrong characters.
Sanderia Faye’s Mourner’s Bench is an impressive first novel, set between 1964 and 1965 in Deep South Maeby, Arkansas. Amid this tumultuous time of civil rights protests, the small town of Maeby remains segregated. Much of the local population is resistant to change, but for different reasons on either side of the racial fence.
Faye’s star is her young heroine Sarah Jones. With a “fifty-year-old mind in an eight-year-old body,” Sarah is perceptive, tenacious, and realistically remarkable. As the novel begins, Sarah is determined to take her precocious place among the sinners of the mourner’s bench at the upcoming Baptist church revival. Sarah carries her Bible everywhere, and she wants very much to be saved and separate from her controversial and free-spirited mother, Esther.
Esther has artistic and political ideals and little patience for the torpid evolution of her hometown. After attending school in Chicago, Esther returns to Maeby determined to change both it and her daughter. Since Sarah is as strong-willed as her mother, the two frequently clash. In fact, Esther’s presence in general causes consternation in Maeby—she wears miniskirts and red lipstick, speaks her mind, and has teamed up with members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Sarah, raised by her grandmother and great-grandmother during Esther’s absence, considers her young mother to be a source of trouble and embarrassment and hopes that she’ll just go back to Chicago—or anywhere else.
As Sarah comes to see the greater picture beyond herself and the importance of her mother’s goals, her formidable spirit and determination help bring about the integration of Maeby. Yet Sarah keeps her salt-of-the-earth savor and never turns sanctimonious or strident.
Mourner’s Bench takes us to a significant social crossroads yet avoids racial polarization through characters of equal complexity, with flaws and fine points and all-too-human motivations. All told, the novel offers a sure sense of its place and people, and a closer look at those who truly lived through the civil rights movement—a chapter in American history that still seems to be writing itself.