Quakertown

Title: Quakertown
Published by: Penguin Group
Release Date: June 21, 2001
Pages: 304
ISBN13: 978-0452283367

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Overview

Lorrie Moore called The Least You Need to Know, Lee Martin’s debut collection, “beautifully written stories of fathers and sons, and the large and small improvisations that make up American life.” USA Today hailed his memoir From Our House for its “moving” portrayal of “the complexities that exist in many American families-equal parts frustration, anger, yearning, and tenacious love. “Quakertown brings the prodigious literary gifts of this award-winning author to life in a beautifully written, deeply affecting story of hope, love, loss, forgiveness, and grace.

Based on a real-life episode in our nation’s history, Martin’s eagerly-anticipated first novel transports us back to North Texas in the 1920s-and into the lives of a segregated black community and their wealthy white brethren. Although separated by only a few miles, they live in two very different worlds marked by rigidly enforced class boundaries and the smoldering racial tensions of the deep South during the Jazz Age.

For the inhabitants of the flourishing black community of Quakertown, life can be sweet. On a warm night in May, when the magnolias are in bloom and rare white lilacs can be found growing wild along the Pecan Creek that runs along the edges of this fine Denton neighborhood, Little Washington Jones imagines there is no lovelier place in all of Texas. A yardman for the white families who live in the grand houses along Oak Street, Little is known for his miraculous way with a flower or a tree or a shrub. His half-white wife, Eugie, works as a seamstress at Neiman’s department store. Their daughter, Camellia, named for one of the most beautiful flowers, is a schoolteacher whose conflicted love for two men-one white, one black-becomes the catalyst for the story’s dramatic action.

As a child, Camellia met Kizer Bell when Little brought her along with him on his gardening rounds. Kizer, born lame to a powerful banker and a depressed, alcoholic mother, is secretly shamed by his deformity and knows he can never lead a completely whole life. The young Camellia is the only person who has ever treated him with real tenderness, and he treasures their precious time together. When they meet as adults, they renew their bond, and a youthful friendship blossoms into a deep and abiding love. Although Kizer’s father, Andrew, is a fair and kind-hearted man who likes and respects Little and his family, the lovers know there is no future for them. Instead, a pregnant Camellia makes plans to marry Ike Mattoon, the volatile, hell-raising son of a Baptist minister. Their story is played out against the backdrop of a town in turmoil, when Little Washington Jones is asked to do something completely unimaginable.

Imbued with Martin’s deep compassion, abiding wisdom, and profound humanity, Quakertown is an unforgettable story of two families, and of the redemption we seek but may not so easily find.

Praise

“A consistently impressive and often dazzling new novel. Lee Martin has written one of the best books of the year.”
—The Washington Post

“Exceptional. Martin has done just about everything right. His writing is both lyrical and precise. His plotting is razor-sharp, unpredictable, and calculated for maximum suspense. His characters are vividly alive. Quakertown is an important addition to the literature of black America, and to that of Texas in the 20th century.”
—Fort Worth Star Telegram

“[Martin] can take your breath away.”
—Chicago Tribune

“Lee Martin’s brilliant first novel…Quakertown deserves a wide audience.”
—Portland Oregonian

Reading Guide

1. Little Washington Jones is the first character we meet in the book. How do these first few pages, which give us a strong sense of his world view and of Quakertown, set up our expectations for the rest of the story?

2. Little’s father once told him that a black man with a talent could always make white folks take notice. How does Little’s gift for gardening affect his own life? The lives of others? What kind of husband and father is he?

3. In the Prologue, Eugie tells Little that he’s “as proud as Lucifer.” What does she mean by this? She calls him a yardman who “carries white folks’ dirt home under his fingernails” but that nothing is ever going to make him white. Do you think Little wishes he were white? Does he resent his blackness? Or is it Eugie who is ashamed of the part of her mixed heritage?

4. Is Tibby Bell secretly ashamed that her son is crippled? Do she and Andrew blame themselves for his deformity? Does Kizer blame them? How does this influence his love for Camellia?

5. Which character influences Camellia the most? What is the relationship between Camellia and Eugie? How does her mother play a significant role in Camellia’s decision about her unborn child? Describe.

6. How would you describe the relationship between Little and his employer, Andrew? In what ways does it exemplify relations between whites and blacks of that particular time and place in America? In what ways is it unique? What is Little’s initial reaction when Andrew requests his help in moving Quakertown to another location?

7. What does Ike Mattoon represent in the story? Does he seem to truly love Camellia? What role does he play in the novel’s later tragedy?

8. How do Camellia’s actions throughout the course of the book affect the lives of others? How does her decision to marry Ike in spite of the fact that she may be carrying Kizer’s child affect her? How does it affect Ike? Kizer?

9. What does the unborn baby come to symbolize in the story?

10. Shame is a recurring theme in the book and reverberates in the lives of most of the characters: Little, Kizer, Camellia, Ike, Bert Gleason. Discuss the source of this powerful emotion in each of the character’s lives and how it affects their actions.

11. How do themes of pride and redemption play out in the book, especially after Andrew accidentally kills Eugie? How does the tragedy impact on the other characters, Tibby in particular?

12. How does knowing the history of the characters help you to understand their present motives and behavior? For example, the suicide of Tibby’s mother?

Excerpt

Prologue 1921

He wouldn’t boast. No, sir. Not a speck. Not Mr. Little Washington Jones. But under the right condition—perhaps on a May night in 1921, when the mimosa trees were pink, and the magnolia flowers had bloomed, and the catalpa trees were thick with blossoms, and he and his wife, Eugie, had just strolled through their front gate after a trip to RCO’s Ice Cream Parlor—he might admit that yes, indeed, he truly did have the finest, most well kept lawn in the entire neighborhood of Quakertown, in all of Denton, maybe, and, though he hated to have to say it, but there it was, slap in front of his eyes, perhaps the loveliest in all of Texas.

Consider, he might say, the American Sweetheart tea roses, and the verbena, and the periwinkle, not to mention—well, if he must—the rare white lilac bush.

And if he paused, then, at the low picket gate, and lifted his hand to one of the white blossoms, just for the sheer joy of letting the velvety petals skim his work-worn palm, who would fault him? Surely no one who knew how he had found the white lilac growing wild along Pecan Creek, showy and magnificent among the scrub of mesquite and bramble, how he had uprooted it, wrapped its ball in damp burlap, and hauled it in his wagon the two miles to Quakertown, hauled it first down Oak Street, past the grand homes and their green, green lawns where young men in white linen trousers played croquet, and ladies in ankle-length skirts batted feather shuttlecocks back and forth across badminton nets. Little sat up straight on the bench seat of his buckboard, gave the reins a shake, and listened to the jingle of the mule’s harness, the cloppety-clop of its shoes over the cobble street. He heard the pock-pock of the croquet games fall silent, a rocker squeak as someone leaned forward. “I swan,” he heard a woman say, that single voice, a voice of amazement and admiration he would carry with him for years. And he knew that what his father had told him was true: a black man with a talent could always make white folks take notice. “Find something they prize,” his father had said, “and do it better than they can. You’ll always have a place with them. You’ll make yourself an easier life.”

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