By J.C. Villegas, $24.99; Brown Books Publishing Group; 302 pages
J.C. Villegas chose a monumental theme for her debut novel, Journey of a Cotton Blossom.
The story begins in rural Mississippi in the late 1940s with the birth of Joseph Dove to a woman who is still a de facto slave on a large cotton plantation. The story follows three generations of the Dove family through the tumult of the 1950s and integration, through the combustible 1960s and Loving v. Virginia, and lastly through the neoconservative 1980s and the emergence of large, organized LGBTQ and AIDS/HIV-rights groups. In a nutshell, Villegas decided to swallow an elephant whole.
Journey of a Cotton Blossom is an epicnot epic in the way that hipsters misuse the word to describe a new donut shop, but epic in the vein of East of Eden, Native Son or The Goldfinch.
There are always problems with epic novels. It is a precarious balancing act for any writer to figure out which stories are important or which details should be left out. In the words of Allen Ginsberg, one must kill one's darlings if a novel like this is going to succeed without a flaw. However, in Journey of a Cotton Blossom, Villegas has some problems killing her darlings.
Villegas insists on including myriad details, such as what precisely a mint julep is or what LGBT stands for or redundant descriptions of common metaphors and similes. Normally, one might expect that a narrative unfold through the activity of the characters in a book; however, Villegas' characters are more like shadow puppets. At the beginning of chapter 14, we are told that Joseph ( one of three significant protagonists ) has become "like an angry old man." But Villegas chooses to then tell her readers what she thinks an angry old man is like rather than let us enjoy what we might feel or see or hear.
Gone is playful metaphor; rigid proverbs are de rigueur. It is like a movie that way. Lost is the opportunity for play. In chapter 32, Joseph is described as "authoritarian." But again, the reader is robbed of a chance to really feel what is meant by that term. Is it necessarily military-like precision or abruptness? Or is it a sneer and a furrowed, cold brow? We aren't allowed to chose since the author tells us, step-by-step, what her poetry means. Villegas' lack of confidence is strewn throughout her book. She simply cannot bare to have others reimagine her story and she sacrifices the stunning beauty of the world she has created for exactitude.
Villegas, through some three hundred pages, is determined that people hear her story, her ideasher philosophy: There's the rub. Her voice should be subtle, riding on the story of her rich and varied characters. Journey of a Cotton Blossom seems more a modern treatise on the history of discrimination than a modern work of historic fiction. Villegas should have been given another 200 pages to give us the enjoyment of knowing her characters instead of just passively watching them.
Stilldespite the normal minutiae associated with a fledgling writer's first workthe novel remains poignantly and broadly relevant during an era of heightened interest in race, sexuality and the qualities that define one's home. Despite the frustrating literary techniques employed here, this book is still one that should be read by a host of people in today's virulent and increasingly tumultuous world.
If Journey does nothing more than encourage its readers to Google "Mississippi Burning" or "1950s rural Southern plantation life," then it will have been a success. Villegas' work has less to do with story and more to do with substance.
It was a labor of love. She admits in the dedication of her book that she was a bully once but, perhaps like many LGBTQ folks, did so because of her own sexuality rather than as a judgment on another. The novel nags at its readers until they agree to learn something. Journey of a Cotton Blossom stubbornly holds its ground.