cover image A Devil and Good Woman Too: The Lives of Julia Peterkin

A Devil and Good Woman Too: The Lives of Julia Peterkin

Susan Millar Williams, Susan Millar-Williams. University of Georgia Press, $29.95 (392pp) ISBN 978-0-8203-1912-4

In the 1920s, when the world of Southern letters was considered by many to be, in H.L. Mencken's words, a ""gargantuan paradise of the fourth rate,"" and when white writers of any locale kept blacks in the background or used them as comic relief, Julia Peterkin, a 40-year-old South Carolina plantation mistress, dared to place rural blacks at the center of her fiction and to portray them as real human beings. Williams, a journalist and scholar, briefly sketches the details of Peterkin's early life. The child of South Carolina's upper classes, she was pushed into marriage with William Peterkin, the heir to the large Lang Syne plantation. After a rocky start (during her difficult labor she was unwillingly sterilized), she became active in the DAR and Daughters of the Confederacy and the running of the plantation and its inhabitants--500 of whom were black and five white. The plantation was the wellspring of her stories, which were so faithful that she sometimes didn't bother to change the names. At a time when very few black Southerners were literate, Peterkin captured in her fiction the rhythm of their lives and of the Gullah language and the final days of plantation culture. Williams doesn't sugarcoat this woman's complexities--Peterkin tended to blame others for her problems and was a plantation owner, not, as one elderly interviewee dryly noted, ""the great emancipator."" But Williams makes a convincing argument for her singularity as a woman and, more important, for the resurrection of her work. Photos. (Oct.) FYI: Georgia will reprint Peterkin's books starting this fall with her Pulitzer Prize- winning Scarlet Sister Mary ($15.95 paper 352p -1956-2) and Green Thursday ($15.95 paper 200p -1955-4)