1 August 2013

Mary Alice Monroe: Sweetgrass / The Secrets We Keep (2005)

This is the English edition of Sweetgrass, retitled The Secrets We Keep. I'm not too sure why though: did the publishers think the word 'sweetgrass' would be unknown to English people, did they think it so obscure that they had to change it to something safer, more sellable? I suspect this is the case, although the effect is to take the flavor out of the whole thing because sweetgrass is not only a central theme of the book but it serves as one of the geographical anchors.

Like two of the books by Mary Alice Monroe that I've read before – The Beach House (2002) and Swimming Lessons (2007)* – Sweetgrass is an example of the Lowcountry subgenre of Southern literature, being set around Charleston. Because South Carolina is the 'palmetto state', references to that tree are almost mandatory, as are references to the devastation of the 1989 Hurricane Hugo, and of course references to sweetgrass and the traditional baskets made from this product. Whereas Monroe's two earlier books reveal a great deal of research into turtles and their plight, in Sweetgrass a major concern is in the craftwork that goes into that commodity, and its increasing scarcity due to housing development in the region.

The main story, though, is about the secrets alluded in the unfortunate English title. Preston Blakely is the husband of Mary June  – that double name obviously being an important Southern identifier – and they are the parents of their dead older son Hamlin, the younger Morgan who hasn't seen his parents for a number of years, and their daughter Nan, whose husband Hank seems bent on estranging her from her family history and therefore from herself.

Enter Morgan, back to the family after his father has suffered a serious stroke. Both Mary June and Preston have distanced themselves from him, although Mary June has in particular following the accidental death of Hamlin. But Morgan will soon more than redeem himself in their eyes (or at least in Preston's one functioning eye).

Crunch time comes when the rapacious Adele – Mary June's ex-friend and sister-in-law, and also Hank's employer – plots with Hank to make a financial killing out of selling the Blakely home, which is also called Sweetgrass, and is becoming an increasing economic burden to Mary June and Preston. While examining the legal niceties of Adele's intended takeover, Morgan chances upon love letters revealing that shortly before marrying Preston, Mary June had a brief love affair with Preston's older brother Tripp, which resulted in her carrying the future Hamlin in her womb: after the accidental death of Tripp she very quickly marries Preston.

Morgan discovers a legal escape route that reveals the extent of Adele's treachery, and together with this the chance discovery of a nearby forgotten slave cemetery (at the same location as a secret sweetgrass patch) neatly put an end to Adele's intended acquisition of the house. In this way, both the property and the sweetgrass themes are woven together.

The good guys win in the end, OK, and maybe there's a bit too much plot in the mix to hold together completely convincingly, but on the plus side no attempt is made to tie everything in a neat bow, although I was mighty pleased to see that Hank got Nan's feminist hackles up far enough for her to ditch her slimy husband.

* I've also read Time Is a River (2008) although, unusually for Monroe, that novel is set in the Appalachians around Asheville, North Carolina.

Mary Alice Monroe and The Isle of Palms, South Carolina

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