Janice Ward Parrish,
The Sweet Smell of a Chinaberry Tree
(Hard Shell Word Factory, 2005)

The torrid and troubled times of the late 1950s and '60s brought us definitive moments, such as the refusal to integrate the "Little Rock Nine" in Arkansas, despite the intervention of President Dwight D. Eisenhower to protect the students. We all know that Dr. Martin Luther King believed in civil rights and integration so much that he sacrificed his life for it, so why in the year 2006 does Janice Ward Parrish feel that it is time to reiterate what occurred so many decades ago?

I had the opportunity to ask Parrish that question, and she replied: "It is time to reiterate for the same reason I think it is important to reiterate the Holocaust. 'Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it.' However, this is not just a story of the struggle between the human need for belonging and acceptance and the desire to honor one's own voices and values, it is a story for everyone who has felt disenfranchised, isolated and rejected by the mainstream. This would include Hispanic, black, Jewish and poor or handicapped children, who may not be required to use separate restrooms and back doors, but are greatly discriminated against by mainstream society."

The Sweet Smell of a Chinaberry Tree tackles several other issues as well as integration, including coming of age, class struggle and romance. The author juxtaposes her own life growing up in the small town of Tuskegee with the lives of the characters in the novel. Austin, she says, is based on her cousin Dan, who was in high school during the integration process. Parrrish said she used the main protagonist of the story, Gaynell, to speak "her own thoughts and experiences as a young girl." So much, in fact, that her friends and family sometimes refer to the author as "Gaynell" and not "Janice."

The novel uses metaphor for loss of innocence and the demise of childhood, but also mirrors the changing attitudes of the McGowan family. Myrtis at first denies her impoverished past but then embraces her new values, Corrine swaps her love of natural beauty for "stoicism and resignation," and Gaynell, who is at first "full of youthful passion," starts to mature and take a more reflective philosophical viewpoint of life.

"I believe that both as peoples and as individuals we are too quick to look for differences and too slow to look for similarities," Janice said during our interview. "I believe skin colour is no more important than hair colour. I believe we are all damaged. I believe that the greatest happiness lies in learning to love those whom life sends our way with all their warts, maddening ways and psychic wounds, and to allow them to see and love us, warts and all."

Read this book and learn to love and accept, and don't ever forget those who have sacrified and suffered for their causes by enduring traumatic treatment that demeaned and belittled them. We may live in a more multicultural and diverse contemporary society, but discrimination and abuse is as relevant today as it was in 1965. We must, as Parrish stated, not let history repeat itself.

by Risa Duff
10 June 2006

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