cover image Perish


Latoya Watkins. Tiny Reparations, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-0-5931-8591-9

In this devastating and gut-wrenching debut, Watkins explores the generational trauma and violence endured by a Black Texas family. The story begins in the 1950s with 16-year-old Helen Jean, who becomes pregnant after the death of her beloved mother. It’s not the first time; Helen Jean’s cousin Ernestine, knowledgeable in abortifacient home remedies, has aided her before. But now, despite hints that she may have been impregnated by a family member and not the lover she eventually marries, Helen Jean hears an inner voice, “a mouth inside her trying to crawl its way out,” beseeching her to “bear it or perish yourself.” She goes on to have four children: Wayne, victimized by his uncle and isolated in a ramshackle shed by his mother; Julie B., who learns to survive by taking advantage of her mother’s cash and benefits; Ruby Nell, who, after suffering sexual abuse at the hands of Wayne and his friends, devolves with crushing mental health issues; and Marie, intellectually challenged and virtually ignored by her mother. Watkins demonstrates a mastery of alternating points of view, including those of Julie B.; Ruby Nell’s daughter, Lydia, who has recurring miscarriages; Julie B’s daughter, Jan, who contends with unhealed trauma; and her son Alex, who suffers from excruciating PTSD and the most extreme manifestations of years of childhood trauma. Evocative language (“this place where the past is a constant haunting”) tellingly illuminates the harm done to each of the family members, as they find some redemption in disclosing family secrets at Helen Jean’s deathbed. With grace and aplomb, Watkins electrifies and shatters. Agent: Samantha Shea, Georges Borchardt Agency. (Aug.)