I grew up in southeastern Kentucky near Straight Creek, a…
Crystal Wilkinson. The Birds of Opulence. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2016. 208 pages. Hardcover. $24.95.
Crystal Wilkinson’s new novel The Birds of Opulence opens with this passage: “Imagine a tree, a bird in the tree, the hills, the creek, a possum, the dog chasing the possum. Imagine yourself a woman who gathers stories in her apron.”
Wilkinson then plaits together the stories of four generations of women who live in the bucolic southern black township of Opulence. Each woman in the Goode-Brown family has stories to tell, but her stories flow into the stories of the female kin who shaped and shadowed her. Together, these “lifetimes of stories are stacked up one on top of the other” until the women carry a piece of one another’s herstory.
The novel centers on the lives of Minnie Mae Brown, family matriarch and great-grandmother, her daughter Granny Tookie, their daughter and granddaughter Lucy Goode-Brown, and great granddaughter Yolanda— whom Lucy gives birth to in a squash patch on the family’s homestead early in the novel. Minnie Mae steadfastly tends to the homestead by keeping the ground hoed and the weeds at bay. The homestead is more than a piece of land tucked away in a holler; it is a place that binds all the women to their family’s mountain culture.
Minnie Mae is a reader of signs and creator of remedies. Her neighbors seek her guidance through life’s phases and stages—from weaning babies to treating colic, to studying nature and bodies, she has ways of knowing the world because she sees what others miss. On the day Yolanda is born, Minnie Mae is visited by a rare bird—“with a breast of red, freckled with gold,” which she reads as a sign that her great-granddaughter will be born soon.
Joe Brown, Lucy’s devoted husband and father of her two children (Yolanda and Kee Kee), is the only adult male allowed inside this female-centric world. Granny Tookie believes Joe is “a true, good thing,” and indeed, despite feeling homesick for Ohio, and not understanding the mysteries and secrets afoot between the four generations of women he cherishes, Joe assumes the role of family caretaker and learns “how to blend into this river of crazy women.”
Amid the sunlight and vibrancy of nature and life, gloom resides inside the Goode-Brown women. The women are susceptible to unhappiness and psychosis, or as Granny Tookie describes it, “The decent of old haunts.” Gloom overtakes Lucy just moments after Yolanda is born—“a sorrow cloaked around her head that she couldn’t shake.” On the ride home from the family homestead after Yolanda’s birth, the narrator observes, “A light summer wind picked up, whipped through the hickory at the end of the lane. The heavens grew dark, as if a storm was churning, but the sky blued up quickly and we traveled in the red blaze of the day’s last sunshine.” The storm is much more than just postpartum depression; what Lucy experiences is the thunderclap of mental illness that gives way to a tempest of sadness that exists within all the women in her family.
Wilkinson beautifully describes the physical landscape within the story’s setting; with its verdant hills, sturdy silver maples, sunrise over the pines while the dew is still in, fog rising up like the hand of God, and endless wildlife. But she also portrays the psychological landscape created by a flock of wingless women who suffer from mental illness and harbor unspoken secrets. Opulence is a place where all is old and good, where every yesterday converges and is prone to shifting within the minds of the Goode-Brown women who are dogged by the memories that reach out, swirl around, and pound inside them. The collective hurts and haunts of these women resound throughout the novel like the sorrowful cooing of mourning doves.
Birds abound in the novel. Cawing crows, soaring buzzards, gloomy blackbirds, a barred owl, whip-poor-wills, a flock of sparrows, ducks, hummingbirds. Birds perch, flit, swoop and soar. Wilkinson utilizes the bird motif in ways that heighten the narrative. The movements of birds mirror the flights of depression the Goode-Brown women glide in and out of, and birds are an intrinsic part of Opulence’s natural scenery. Birds also represent symbols and signs—good and bad, and they are metaphors for freedom and oppression, as exemplified through Yolanda, who wants to fly away from Opulence, while Tookie is as place bound as a mother hen— resigned to nesting for as long as it takes.
Minnie Mae, Tookie, Lucy, and Yolanda are free to roam the bountiful landscape surrounding them, and free to dream and imagine different lives and different places, yet they are caged by family dynamics. Although these women love fiercely, they clip one another’s wings and peck away at one another’s faults.
The Birds of Opulence is part of the Kentucky Voices Series at the University Press of Kentucky, and it arrives like “the grand whisper of daffodils in the spring” to mark Wilkinson’s return to the new and noteworthy section of bookstores. It has been over fourteen years since Wilkinson published her first two books—Blackberries, Blackberries and Water Street. The Birds of Opulence is an important addition to Wilkinson’s body of work. The novel openly addresses mental illness in a black community, is an exemplary example of literary fiction, showcases the author’s captivating storytelling style, weaves memory and reflection impeccably, and invites readers to perch for a spell and keenly observe characters that seem oddly familiar, and astonishingly real.
Wilkinson writes so genuinely about the Goode-Brown family’s experiences with memory, kinship, tenderness, anguish, hope, mental illness, laughter, care, and the desire to feel connected, that it is hard to think of them as mere characters in a novel. Their stories feel like our own; it is no wonder that they “greet us, like a hundred tongues whispering home, home, home.”