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The Purple Heights, 1/2

July 4, 2007

Oh, Marie Conway Oemler. Why are you so awesome? How many small, fictional, South Carolina towns have you created? What is it with the butterflies? Why aren’t there more of your books on Project Gutenberg? Is there, like, a fanclub I can join?

So, yeah, I enjoyed The Purple Heights.

It was interesting to read The Purple Heights because in many ways it’s a lot less original than Slippy McGee or A Woman Named Smith. It reminded me of so many things, from Trilby to The Portrait of a Lady to Who Cares? It’s sort of a really typical romance novel of the time — the second half of it, at least — but Marie Conway Oemler writes so enjoyably that it doesn’t matter, although I’m not sure I can forgive even Oemler the ending. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Peter Devereaux Champneys is the last of the Champneys. They used to be a rich and important South Carolina — It’s always South Carolina — family, but now there’s just Peter and his mother and a tiny house on a tiny piece of land and their black servant, Emma Campbell. When the story starts, Peter is about seven, shy, and with a practical way of thinking that somehow makes everyone think he’s a moron. Example:

Teacher: “A boy buys chestnuts at one dollar and sixty cents the bushel and sells them at ten cents the quart, liquid measure.—Peter Champneys, what does he get?”

Peter: “It all depends on the judge, and whether the boy’s a white boy or a nigger,” he decided. “It’s against the law to use liquid measure, you know. But I should think he’d get about thirty days, if he’s a nigger.”

For that, Peter gets sent to the principal’s office.

Peter also has a lot of artistic talent. Whenever he can get his hands on a pencil and a bit of paper, he draws. One day he comes across a butterfly — a Red Admiral. Marie Conway Oemler clearly has a thing for butterflies, and so does Peter, because he’s completely amazed by the Red Admiral. He does a quick sketch of it inside one of his schoolbooks, and never forgets it. He thinks it’s a kind of a fairy, and he finds that whenever he sees one, he seems to have good luck.

Peter’s mother dies when he’s, I don’t know, maybe eleven or twelve, and he manages to avoid getting sent to an orphanage by threatening people. He does odd jobs around town, and people continue to think he’s a moron. Only the white people, though. Peter gets along really well with the black people.

Oemler’s depictions of relations between whites and black in the south are really interesting, and The Purple Heights is a lot more up front about racism than her other books that I’ve read. The common factor, though, is separateness. I remember being a little disturbed by the depictions of the happy, but overly superstitious and somewhat servile black maids in A Woman Named Smith, but after having read The Purple Heights, I think I get it. Oemler is saying the black people are different, a separate population living in the same town, but she’s saying that the black people make themselves separate for a reason. Some of them remember being slaves, and all of them are absolutely aware of white prejudice and injustice, so they steer clear.

Peter, young, orphaned, and almost friendless, doing odd jobs around town, finds himself more at home with the blacks than the whites. He’s sharp enough to understand the racial dynamics, and the blacks see that he’s very kind, and just as marginalized as they are, and they accept him. Which is all very nice and sweet, but when I say this book is a lot more serious about race than the others, I’m not kidding: There’s a bit where Daddy Neptune, an old black man, shoots his foster son Jake for raping and killing a white girl, and it’s actually sort of an act of kindness, because he’s saving Jake from the lynch mob. Then the mob comes along and, furious about being done out of the anticipated lynching, they decide that they might as well lynch Daddy Neptune instead. Twelve year old Peter has to hold the mob off with a shotgun until the sheriff arrives, and then he has to convince the sheriff that it would be wrong to kill Daddy Neptune. It’s all very intense, and kind of frightening.

Meanwhile, Peter is also learning a bit more about art. Claribel Spring, a young woman staying in the area one summer, takes him under her wing, and turns out to be a better teacher than she is a painter. By the time she leaves, Peter knows that he wants to be an artist.

Peter continues doing odd jobs and drawing in his spare time until he’s twenty, when his father’s long-lost brother Chadwick Champneys, who everyone thought was dead, shows up at Peter’s little house one night. Turns out he’s rich, and wants to pass on some of his money to his only surviving relative, Peter. Not all of it, though. There’s someone else he wants to benefit, too, though — his wife Milly’s niece, Anne Simms. Not wanting to break up the property, he asks Peter to marry Anne. And he gets Peter to agree, too, even though neither of them has ever met the girl, because in exchange he offers the opportunity to study art in Europe for seven years uninterrupted, and Peter can’t pass up the chance, because he knows he’ll never get another one like it.

To be continued.

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