September 2021 – The Pecan Man by Cassie Dandridge Selleck
Zion’s Readers returned from their summer vacations revived and eager to discuss The Pecan Man by Cassie Dandridge Selleck, a slim book that has had movie rights optioned and a sequel in the works. While short in length, it tackled multiple weighty subjects, and we understood why reviewers put it in a category with The Help and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Set in the South in the mid-1970s, we met Ora Lee Beckworth who was recently widowed. Her husband owned a profitable insurance company and Ora Lee was financially very comfortable. She had employed a local black woman, Blanche, as maid for many years and decided to employ a homeless black man, Eldred ‘Eddie’ Mims, to mow her yard and do weeding. Other townsfolk viewed him with suspicion, but Ora Lee found him dependable. Eldred lived in the woods among the pecan trees, hence the nickname the Pecan Man.
Ora Lee had never considered herself prejudiced and, indeed, felt she did her part to follow the Christian directive to help others. When tragedy struck her maid’s family, Ora Lee’s eyes were opened to rage, injustice, bias, bigotry, hatred, impotence in the face of inequality, and how benign neglect can foster systemic racism. Forced to review her own life, she found determination, the ability to use her social position to right wrongs, and the path to personal growth. She also learned that a well-intentioned lie leads to a web of other lies and unintended consequences.
The catalyst for these realizations was the rape of Blanche’s 5-year-old daughter, Grace, by the local police chief’s son on her way home from school. Blanche saw no way to win a prosecution of the young man and only more horror for Grace to live through if she tried. Ora Lee angrily but reluctantly agreed with Blanche’s point and also agreed not to tell Grace’s siblings. However, she threw what protection she could over Blanche’s family, drew them into her immediate circle, made her home available to them all, and got to know better Blanche’s son who was in the military, her oldest daughter looking to college, and the teenage twins. At Thanksgiving, she invited Blanche’s family and Eddie to have dinner at her home. And Eddie, having found Grace after the rape and brought her to Ora Lee’s, did not know the rest of the family was ignorant of the event. He innocently asked in everyone’s hearing how Grace was doing – another catalyst for more lies. Marcus, Blanche’s oldest in the military, didn’t buy the answer he was given and pursued Eddie for the truth. Then Marcus confronted the rapist and was chased by him through the woods with disastrous results that landed him back on Ora Lee’s doorstep.
Ora Lee concocted a plan to get Marcus away, lent him her car, and began to spin a wider web of lies, but Blanche was suspicious. When police showed up to announce Marcus had been killed in an accident on the highway, the bottom fell out of their shaky house of cards. And then Eddie was arrested on the charge of murdering the police chief’s son. Ora Lee ran smack dab into evidence of police brutality when she visited Eddie. As she strove to help Blanche’s family through their grief and somehow have Eddie released, she faced blatant prejudice when she took Blanche’s daughter Christmas shopping only to have the store detective level a charge of stealing at the young woman. When Eddie decided to cut a deal with the prosecutor that would keep him in jail, Ora Lee was caught in the tangled web of deceit. Could there be an equitable resolution for any of those involved? Was it possible that Ora Lee could grow something good from this mess? Were there any more truths to be revealed?
Zion’s readers were pleasantly surprised by the length of the book and agreed that, while some of the events were hard to read, the book was fast-paced and not bogged down in description and introspection. The author’s dialogue was authentic as was her portrayal of southern culture and her character development. While our readers’ first reaction was to definitely report the crime of rape and see that Grace had counseling, Blanche’s reasoning was acknowledged as an accurate summation of the outcome. Knowing that the author’s sequel to this book deals with Grace, one of our readers observed that she knew of a similar real-life situation where the victim had all the counseling that could be had and still had been unable to come to terms with the experience. The success of counseling can depend on many things including the age and mental strength of the victim. We were reminded of the women in Berlin, Germany as the Russian troops poured into the city at the end of the war and there was widespread rape. Some of the stronger women used the experience to try to form a relationship with their violator that would offer protection from other men and somehow turn the unthinkable to their advantage. But many could not.
Many of our readers found it hard to believe that a middle-class woman would have a maid in the mid-70s, but others remembered their parents having paid help around the house. We could relate to Ora Lee going through life without noticing the bias and racism prevalent in society since it didn’t impact her directly; we grew up in much the same way. Additionally, being childless might have kept her from seeing bias up close. Having read The Help earlier as a group, we contrasted that novel told from a black person’s perspective of prejudice with this book told from a white person’s perspective. Both perspectives are worthy of regard, and certainly Ora Lee’s progressive embrace of Blanche’s family and the paths she took which are described in the last part of the book offer hope that growth can happen. Another comparison was made of Ora Lee’s character to that of the lead character in Driving Miss Daisy – both ladies of spunk.
The author had a final twist in the plot at the end which we felt was rather cliched, but only a few of us saw it coming. We were undecided if certain relationships were known by different characters, and we questioned the absence of skid marks at Marcus’s accident. Possibly the planned sequel might make these things clear. Many felt the ending of the book was abrupt; we were waiting for a trial to play out but running out of pages! All in all, this was an unsettling book both in content and in being able to recognize ourselves at some point in its pages. And our voting supported that with no thumbs down votes at all, two readers giving it a knuckle up, ten giving it one thumb up, and three giving it two thumbs up. A good start to our reading season. Zion’s Book Club next looks at Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf on October 14th. Happy reading!