REVIEW: Being Plumville by Savannah J. Frierson
Note: This is Janine’s entry for Keishon’s To Be Read challenge.
Dear Ms. Frierson,
It is 1953 in Plumville, Georgia, and seven year old Benjamin Drummond considers four year old Coralee “Ceelee” Simmons his best friend. Little Bennie loves to read to Ceelee and is determined to protect her from the bullying of Tommy Birch. But when Bennie announces that he wants to marry Ceelee when they grow up, his mother insists that Ceelee’s mother stop bringing her to their house.
In Florence Drummond’s eyes, it won’t do for the two children to remain close. Coralee’s mother, Patty, is Florence’s housekeeper, while Florence’s husband is a state judge in whose footsteps Benjamin is expected to follow. But that can’t happen if Benjamin remains so openly friendly toward Ceelee. Benjamin is white; Coralee is black. The two must be separated.
Flash forward fifteen years to 1968. Benjamin and Coralee are both attending the newly integrated Solomon College in Bakersfield, not far from Plumville. Twenty-two year old Benjamin is a senior political science major, football team quarterback, and a member of a “Good ole Omega Kappa Psi” fraternity. Nineteen year old Coralee, who has skipped a couple of grades, is a junior English major and a member of the Black Students Union.
The two have avoided each other for years. Coralee thinks Benjamin, now a friend of the bully Tommy Birch, bears little resemblance to the boy was so kind to her. Benjamin thinks Coralee lost interest in their friendship as a child, and accepts that that was for the best: after all, as the son of a state judge, he is Plumville, and you can’t associate closely with black people and be Plumville.
But all that changes when Benjamin’s English professor — a northerner — insists that his grades are too low for him to keep playing football. Benjamin will have to be tutored, Professor Carmichael tells Ben and his coach. And the tutor Professor Carmichael has chosen is none other than Coralee.
Like Benjamin, who desperately wants to keep playing football, Coralee has reasons to agree to the arrangement. She plans to become a teacher, and tutoring experience is an important step toward that goal. But Coralee requests that the tutoring sessions be kept a secret, and because they could rock the divided campus, Benjamin, his coach and Professor Carmichael agree.
Benjamin is quickly attracted to Coralee during their study sessions in a remote corner of the library, and he tries to be friendly to her, but she is understandably wary. She only grows more aloof when Benjamin and his fraternity brothers show up to disrupt a meeting of the Black Students Union. But her coolness serves to make Benjamin aware that he wants to be her friend again. He is torn between maintaining the social order of the Old South, and what he wants to have with Coralee, between being Plumville, and being true to himself.
When the Black Student Union plans a rally in support of founding an African American Studies department at Solomon College, Tommy Birch and other members of Benjamin’s fraternity plan to show up bearing Confederate flags. They want Benjamin to accompany them. He is the quarterback and his father is a state judge, so if he’s there the school administration will look the other way.
Benjamin is confused and torn between what he really wants — to have nothing to do with the plan, which revolts him — and what’s expected of him by his fraternity brothers and by society. In the end, he goes along with his friends, at least until he sees Coralee fighting off an attacker at the rally. That’s when Benjamin grabs Coralee and carries her to safety.
The day is a turning point in Benjamin and Coralee’s relationship. Benjamin is so kind and gentle that Coralee begins to trust him and give in to his overtures of friendship, even as she fears the outcome of such feelings. And Benjamin vows to protect Coralee and remain her friend. Obviously, their emotions take a turn toward the romantic, and just as obviously, the course of their love does not run smooth.
I purchased Being Plumville after you mentioned it in the comment section of the Smart Bitches thread on interracial romance last year because the premise (interracial romance in the 1960s south) caught my interest. It languished in my TBR pile, partly, I think, because the writing style didn’t entice me to read far and partly because of the bland cover. But because I’m participating in this year’s TBR challenge and May’s theme is friends-to-lovers, it seemed like the perfect time to read and review this book.
So how did I like Being Plumville? Unfortunately, even though I really wanted to like it, I ended up feeling lukewarm about the book. One of the things that kept me from getting emotionally involved in the story was the writing. I often felt that the characters were being described from the outside, explained to me, rather than being revealed from the inside. This kept me from identifying with their feelings deeply. Also, while some of the metaphors were nice, others did not work as well for me. For example, there’s this description of the effect of Benjamin and Coralee’s first kiss on Coralee, which I think stretches too far:
It was major, and though it didn’t seem to affect the overall scheme of things, her internal world had been rocked, shifted, and set in a new galaxy, spinning in a new orbit around a sun whose light was so bright it blinded her.
A second difficulty I had with the book was that I felt it relied too much on Benjamin and Coralee’s childhood friendship, which was only shown in a brief prologue. Benjamin’s feelings seemed to simply pick up where they had left off, and the getting to know one another stage of the relationship was glossed over. I would have liked to see Benjamin and Coralee discover more shared interests or ways they complemented each other.
Another problem for me was that I had a hard time warming to Benjamin. No matter that he was torn about it, his lending of his presence to his bigoted friends’ harrassment of Coralee and her friends really rubbed me the wrong way. I understand that he was young and that his actions were shaped by his upbringing, but I had a very difficult time forgiving him for them.
Even after Benjamin came to regret what he had done and vowed to protect Coralee, and even after he had fallen for her, it was hard for me to trust him. Not because he was a bad person, but because in comparison with Coralee, he came across as spoiled. I was never sure he understood the gravity of the situation, the risk he was putting Coralee in by dating her, even in secret. Despite being told that he was the most sought after guy on campus, despite his blue eyes and his being a quarterback, he sometimes came across to me as nothing more than an overprivileged frat boy.
I liked Coralee much better. She was a hardworking student determined to overcome racial and social barriers, to become the first person in her family to graduate from college and to then go on to further her education. Coralee cared about justice and depended on her friendships with the members of the Black Students Union as a source of support on the campus. She also helped her parents, who worked long hours in a struggle to support the family, and worried about her brother LJ, fighting in Vietnam.
But all of this just made me wonder if Benjamin deserved her. Truthfully, the romantic relationship was not that romantic to me, since I was constantly stressed on Coralee’s behalf and questioned whether her heart was safe with Benjamin.
The parts of the book that worked best for me were scenes involving secondary characters like Benjamin’s fraternity brother Felix, who had an innate, colorblind sense of justice and fairness (I would have rather seen Coralee with him), Coralee’s mother Patty, who worried desperately for her daughter, Coralee’s brother LJ, particularly when he talked about his experiences in Vietnam, and Benjamin’s father Paul, who was willing to support his son’s unconventional choice for reasons which only gradually become clear.
I liked the concept of Being Plumville better than the execution, but I appreciate that you wrote a different, unique and risk-taking book. It is not every day that I get to read a story that revolves around such a fresh conflict, and I genuinely wish I had enjoyed it more. C.