I have a new sister-friend. Her name is Opal Pruitt.
Like me, she is Black. She has an abiding love for her family and community, an imagination that travels from the soil under her feet into the heavens, and a strong desire for justice and true love.
Our friendship transcends space and time – as 17-year-old Opal lives in fictional, rural, 1936 Parsons, Georgia, and between the covers of “When Stars Rain Down,” a new novel by Indiana author Angela Jackson-Brown.
Jackson-Brown is an award-winning writer, poet and playwright and a graduate of Spalding University's low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing. She is author of the novel “Drinking from a Bitter Cup” and is the winner of the 2021 Alabama Authors Award in poetry from the Alabama Library Association for the book “House Repairs.” She teaches creative writing and English at Ball State University.
There are some who would call Opal and her beloved Granny “the help” or “domestics,” as they cross invisible borders that divide Blacks and whites to cook and clean and perform other tasks – persistent leftovers from slavery times.
Those monikers do not fit Jackson-Brown's fully realized characters and community. I even hesitate to call them “characters” as each one, in defiance of stereotype, has a whole, complete and complex life beyond the gaze of the people who employ and subjugate them.
I find myself loving everything about Opal's doting Granny Birdie, who took over raising her after Opal's mother left, and names such as Uncles Little Bud, Myron and Lem, Aunt Shimmy, and, of course, Cedric Perkins, the preacher's son who is sweet on Opal.
I have the same sense of knowing more about the lives and motivations of the white characters, Jimmy Earl Ketchums, and his troubled mother, Corrine, the feeble matriarch, Miss Peggy and their almost child-like emotional dependence on the people who toil under their supervision.
Colored Town, the haven for Black people that is frequently and violently violated by malevolent forces arrayed to keep them in their place, where even the chickens have names, feels like every Black community that ever existed – close-knit from love as much as from a need for security.
Jackson-Brown writes of the Black community that was a part of, but apart from, fictional Parsons: “...on any given night you might hear soft quarrels, the sounds of lovemaking, or the giggles and laughter that were just natural sounds among those of us who lived in Colored Town.”
And she even conjures a Black character, a “root woman” who lives outside the conventions of both towns.
Even “no-account” white men and Ku Klux Klan members have complex roles in the run-up to Founder's Day, the town holiday that was the driving event of the End-of-Days-hot summer of 1936 in “When Stars Rain Down.”
When Jackson-Brown writes baseball great Satchel Paige into the narrative, she reminds readers of the historical truths that permeate her storytelling and are relevant today.
In all of those ways, Opal, my new friend, thanks to Jackson-Brown's shimmering prose, is as real as any living, breathing person. I thank her for introducing me, and the reading world, to Opal – someone we can all have the pleasure of getting to know better.
Celeste Williams is a journalist, having worked 25 years for daily newspapers around the country. More recently, she is a poet and playwright. Her review is made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities.
"When Stars Rain Down" by Angela Jackson-Brown (Thomas Nelson) 368 pages, $17.99 (paperback)