The murder of Glorette Picard in an alley sends ripples through the black community of Sarrat. Glorette, with her reams of long black hair, amethyst eyes and diminutive, honey-kissed limbs, has exchanged the power of her beauty for the temporary oblivion of the pipe, trolling with her friend Sisia in search of customers. The alley is in Rio Seco in San Bernardino County, where orange groves once contributed to the economic independence of local families. Glorette’s home place, Sarrat, is modeled after the original in Louisiana, the new Sarrat a repository of hope for two families fleeing the particular violence of a white man’s obsession with five beautiful sisters. Gustave Picard and Enrique Antoine imagine their children and grandchildren secure in a new place.
One of the laughing, carefree children racing through the groves while their parents labor, Glorette is afflicted by the remarkable beauty that draws both men’s and women’s eyes, prompting her father’s concern: “She is too beautiful and men will not leave her alone.” The lifeless body tossed into a shopping cart is discovered by a childhood classmate, Sidney Chabert, who initiates Glorette’s return to Sarrat and a dignified, private burial, not abandoned to authorities who dismiss such incidents as NHI (no human involved).
In haunting prose that reflects the Picard and Antoine families’ experiences in Louisiana, including a pivotal night during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, Straight plumbs the tangled lives of this intimate community. It’s history is marked by a righteous murder, the flight of families engaged in a great endeavor, the building of a new home place in the groves of California, where children can grow up unafraid: “These girls supposed to be safe.” The promising early years have been battered by the attrition of time and society’s erosion, the chronic lack of employment, the pervasive culture of crime and drugs that leech the future from young men easily seduced and institutionally warehoused, peeling storefronts faded under a relentless sun, the sharp teeth of poverty feeding on opportunity.
In early chapters, the impact of Glorette’s death is absorbed by men: Sidney, who has always been in love with Glorette; Gustave, her father; Enrique, her uncle; Alfonso, who hears the New York hooker, Fly, hollering at Glorette and Sisia; and Victor, Glorette’s son, whose passion for learning equals his mother’s obsession with the pipe. The women’s recollections are uniquely female: Marie-Claire, who sits with a lifeless body she visualizes as a sparkling child; Clarette, who shared a girlhood with Glorette, witnessed her ripening. Their history evolves like the oft-turned pages of a photograph album, from the hardships and tragedies of Louisiana to a new beginning in California, stories bridging one generation to another--for Glorette, a sad ending in a shopping cart in an alley.
Straight’s ability to inhabit personalities, culture and place is extraordinary, intimate and familiar, her characters like folks who form the texture of our own lives. As in A Million Nightingales and Take One Candle, Light a Room, in this final novel of the Rio Seco trilogy, the author infuses them with humor, passion, heartbreak and hope. Glorette is reflected through the eyes of those who knew her, a beauty wantonly extinguished in a world grown weary of suffering. The tale begun with Moinette, a slave in Louisiana, comes full circle in California with Glorette’s legacy: her son, Victor.