Myrna, the Mammy: Louise Penny’s American Dream?
An Exploration of Race in the Award-Winning Novels of Canada’s Queen of Mysteries
Canada’s Louise Penny is one of the finest writers of mysteries in the world today. Yes, this is a bold claim, an audacious assertion, but it’s nonetheless true. I don’t say this because nearly every book she has written has won some major award or acknowledgment in Canada, Great Britain, or the U.S. multiple times, with Agatha, Anthony, Macavity awards as standard fare for her books — not one is missing some significant honor. She is lauded across the spectrum by awards from aficionado readers (Anthony, Agatha, Barry), from writers in the UK, US, and Canada (Dagger, Edgar, and Ellis, respectively), and even from booksellers (Dilys). I don’t say this because one of her loveliest books, A Beautiful Mystery, features Medieval chant and my research specialty is early music, which treasures the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods in Western culture. I say this because she has managed to do what few mystery writers have ever achieved: the quadrifecta of eloquent prose, intricate puzzles, logical surprises, and believable characters.
I’m not the only one who believes this. After I’d formed my opinion I dove into the research for this essay. Maureen Corrigan, of the Washington Post says: “No other writer…writes like Penny…Her characters are distilled to their essences. The stylistic result is that a Gamache mystery reads a bit like an incantatory epic poem”; The New York Times: “Penny writes with grace and intelligence about complex people struggling with complex emotions. But her great gift is her uncanny ability to describe what might seem indescribable — the play of light, the sound of celestial music, a quiet sense of peace.” Marcel Berlins of the London Times notes: “Penny writes with intelligence and subtlety.”
For most of its history, the mystery genre has been dominated by women: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, et al. This was possible, in large part, because the genre was dismissed as trivial, as popcorn compared to the boeuf bourguignon of “serious” novels. Dame Agatha was praised for her puzzles but reviewers took pains to denigrate her writing. Writers like Ruth Rendell and P.D. James were praised for their psychological studies while their weaker command of the basic puzzles of mysteries was overlooked as indicative of their position as “serious” novelists.
But as societies evolve across the globe, it is less common to dismiss the work of women simply because it is the work of women. That evolution has made it possible for excellent writers like Penny to be taken seriously as excellent writers, not “in spite of” writing mysteries, but “because of” their skill. Some reviewers do acknowledge past prejudices: The Christian Science Monitor says: “Penny — whose books wind up on Best Novels of the Year lists, not ‘just’ Best Mysteries — is a one-woman argument against literary snobbery.” Amen.
And as the owner of over 2000 mysteries scanning every mystery genre — mysteries set in virtually every state in the union; set in many provinces in Canada and several countries on each continent but Antarctica; and written in, or translated into, five different languages, I have some claim to expertise. And that was before I earned my MFA in writing and literary translation at Columbia University.
More than this, however, Penny has achieved something more that most writers, regardless of genre, cannot even imagine. Alexander McCall Smith has managed it. Colin Cotterill has managed it. They write stories about good and decent people. They maintain contact with life’s tribulations, recognizing that not all ends well, but somehow they prove that joy can be both beautiful and interesting; virtue can coexist with suspense and mystery; hope can be just as compelling as despair. These writers prove that depravity and corruption need not be the linchpins of excellent fiction.
McCall Smith’s №1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, set in Botswana, features Precious Ramotswe, a woman of “traditional build” who sells the cattle her father leaves as a legacy and starts her own detective agency, the only one in the entire country run by a woman. A former victim of domestic abuse, the divorced Precious teams up with her loyal suitor, J.L.B. Matekoni, and Mma Makutsi, her eager-beaver secretary. Matekoni, the owner of a local garage, constantly repairs her tiny white van; Makutsi constantly bemoans the fact that pretty girls with lower secretarial college scores get better jobs. Yes, there are moral quandaries in this sixteen-book series; and yes, there are people who do wicked things, but the Scottish author’s love of the country in which he was raised, guides us through the dangerous undertow of human duplicity as the charm of Mma Ramotswe’s ethical compass steers us.
Colin Cotterill, another writer from the British Isles, sets his tales in Laos. Although I try to buy books set in the locale I’m visiting, there was nothing set in Indonesia when I headed there in 2007, so I just got a couple of these.
Septuagenarian Dr. Siri Paiboun takes the lead. A French-trained Laotian physician, he was a half-hearted communist revolutionary in his youth, half-hearted because he knew then what he knows even better now, that people don’t really change: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Drafted out of retirement to be the new nation’s only coroner, he assembles his cast of misfits: Nurse Dtui, who is learning Russian in hopes that she may be ready if the opportunity for additional study in the Communist motherland comes her way; Inspector Phosy, Siri’s connection to the powers that be, who keeps Siri’s anarchical views from kicking him in the pants; and Mr. Gueng, a homeless man with Down’s Syndrome who becomes the morgue assistant.
Every time Cotteril says this book is the final one (he started saying that at Book 4), another one comes out. We’re now at Book 15, The Delightful Life of a Suicide Pilot. Cotterill, a long-time Laos resident originally from Great Britain, keeps Communist incompetence, torture, the supernatural, racial tensions, and respect for the Laotian people and their traditions in skillful balance.
Like the queen of mysteries, Agatha Christie, Smith and Cotteril chose unlikely heroes. Christie chose a foreigner, like Hercule Poirot, a Belgian whose dandified looks are out of step with English tradition, McCall Smith chose Precious, a native Botswanan whose hefty build is out of step with modern standards of beauty. Christie chose an elderly woman like Jane Marple with a gift for seeing solutions in everyday items; Cotteril chooses an elderly man who sees spirits, a man outside the power structure.
Louise Penny takes the strides made by McCall Smith and Cotterill one step forward. One giant step for writer-kind. While McCall Smith and Cotterill maintain a lightly comedic touch in their books set in faraway climes like Botswana and Laos, Penny’s tone is serious and her characters are complex, flawed members of Western culture; their decency is sometimes hard won, but fundamental to their nature, a constant companion.
Her main character, Armand Gamache, chief homicide detective of the Québec Sûreté, knows what it means to be an outcast, having been a student at Oxford who barely spoke English on his arrival in England. Back home in Canada, he unabashedly loves his native Québécoise wife of several decades, Reine-Marie, who has her own professional career as a librarian. Gamache is thoughtful, widely read, and consistently, intrinsically honest. His second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, is deeply troubled as a result of a job-related debacle, but fiercely loyal to those he loves and holds in high regard. Also working with them is Isabelle Lacoste, an inspector and a mother of two who is treated with unforced respect for her calm competence and work ethic, though she has unexpected imagination as she communes with the spirits of the recently dead, promising respect for their memory. The relationships between the characters deepens and grows as a major conspiracy clouds their continuing interactions.
All of these well-drawn characters continuously seek out the tiny village of Three Pines in the mountains of Québec, adjacent to the burbling streams of the Rivière Bella Bella, the locale for the first case chronicled in the books. Among the inhabitants: a gay male couple serving as bistro owners and innkeepers; two renowned painters, also a couple; an eminent, but eccentric misanthropic poet; and Myrna Landers, a former psychologist who left her successful therapy practice in Montreal behind, seeking the peace of a remote village where she runs a new and used bookstore while dispensing emotional support free of charge to those who need it.
That’s what makes it so disheartening when Myrna, the only character found in every single book set in Three Pines; a therapist; the only black villager; the owner of the only bookstore in this highly literate village, the one who has much to say, is the only recurring character with zero lines in the television retelling of Penny’s first book Still Life. Zero. Or that’s what it seemed like.
When I went back through it, I found there had actually been two whole lines. Myrna said: “What’s the painting called?” and “We’re getting ready to start the ritual.” She’s there onscreen as a sort of brunch or dinner party extra, a little splash of color, the fly in the buttermilk. Having shaved pounds off the original character by choosing an actor of average size, I suppose they got carried away and shaved away her voice as well. When I watched this adaptation I was so stunned, I went back to the book to make certain I had not inflated Myrna’s role in my own mind.
Maybe my admiration for Penny’s books had subconsciously made me insert myself into her stories as the black resident of Three Pines. Maybe I had confused this book with another one. Maybe … But no.
I’ve always been treated well in Canada, during the three summers I’ve spent there: two in Toronto and one in the Laurentian Mountains; and the many conferences I’ve attended in Québec City, Montreal and Toronto. Even when a skilled thief stole my purse, the citizens of Toronto did all they could to make it right, apologizing that this should happen to a guest in their city, offering cab money when I went to pick up my new American Express card. I suppose I subconsciously saw Canada as a commonsense bastion of courtesy to people regardless of race. Of course, I knew of problems with indigenous cultures, but perhaps I saw that as similar to Australia where many of European descent treat their aboriginal peoples badly, but treat Americans of African descent with courtesy.
But now I have to rethink the Canadian mythology I’ve been harboring. I had already been wondering how the one black person in Penny’s village didn’t seem to have any relatives or former lovers or friends. The gay white couple has relatives, a past. The painters? Same. The poet? Same. But Myrna just seems to have come out of her therapist practice into the village sui generis.
Once on this track, I started to consider the “mammy” role African American women often play in U.S. culture. Sociologist David Pilgrim wrote a website essay on “The Mammy Caricature” for the Ferris State University Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia (yes, there is such a thing).
Pilgrim explains the fictional mammy as a figment of the societal white male “guilt” and denial of the sexual attractiveness of black women: Aunt Chloe from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Aunt Delilah in Imitation of Life, Mammy in Gone with the Wind, Pearl in the Mae West feature She Done Him Wrong, and even the pancake syrup icon, Aunt Jemima.
With aid from Barbara Christian’s book on black women novelists, Pilgrim defines the mythical mammy as “black, fat . . . strong, loyal . . . sexless, religious and superstitious.” Additionally, she is both “politically safe” and “culturally safe.” He explains that the mammy character can have no black friends, devoting all her time and energy to the whites in her life. Against all my strongest impulses I forced myself to delve back in the dark caverns of books I so admire, limiting my spelunking to Myrna.
Myrna, full of wisdom and quotes from Martin Luther King, fantasizes about a Rasta man, but never has a lover, a family member, a friend from her former life. It was very clever, in fact, to cast her as a psychologist, which justifies her role as a listening ear who will never ask for reciprocity. She remains politically and culturally safe by never saying anything controversial, never talking about race except to admit she used to wish she were white. But her race is often mentioned. And although the expression of her self-hood is more eloquently stated in Penny’s books than in the old days of bandana-wrapped, always grinning or fussing mammies, I can’t help but see the similarities. In each book, some aspect of the mammy persona surfaces. Her weight, for example, is mentioned in every book.
In Still Life, she is introduced by her weight and “mammyness” before her professional credentials are mentioned:
In the kitchen, Clara was greeting Myrna Landers. “The table looks wonderful,” said Myrna, peeling off her coat and revealing a bright purple caftan. Clara wondered how she squeezed through doorways. Myrna then dragged in her contribution to the evening. “Where would you like it, child?” (15)
Both women are mature adults, but Myrna is given the mammy role by that crack about “fitting through doors” and by her use of the word “child.” On the very next page, however, Penny’s sensitivity captures the reality of Ralph Ellison’s perceptive “invisibility”: “being black, she knew that singular expression when people saw her as furniture” (16). In the TV version, she is and remains furniture, a comfortable presence on which the roles of others can rest. A few more examples:
A tiny car pulled up to their open gate and an enormous black woman got out (A Fatal Grace,11).
Myrna smiled. She looked like a massive Easter egg herself, black and oval and wrapped in a brilliant purple and red caftan . . . She patted her middle, large and generous, like the woman herself (The Cruelest Month, 2, 4).
And again, in speaking to Inspector Isabelle Lacoste, married mother of three, the never-married, childless Myrna takes on the maternal role: “It’s all right, child . . . I think we might understand” (The Cruelest Month, 121).
The sexless, religious, and superstitious portions of the mammy are seen as early as the third book (The Cruelest Month) in a ritual she introduces to the village women:
Myrna nodded. She remembered walking through Three Pines with a stick of smoking sage and sweetgrass . . . “An old pagan ritual from a time when pagan meant peasant and peasant meant worker and being a worker was a significant thing” (98).
Of itself, this scene is not offensive. I remember thinking it a lovely ode of respect for women of earlier cultures. Part of me values the idea of community rituals that bring peace, contentment, acceptance. The “smudging” ritual is an appealing image, burning sage and sweetgrass over an area where a murder has occurred, then following that with ribbons tied to a “prayer stick” representing positive thoughts that flicker in the wind . The comfort Myrna offers is valid, but the combination of weight, a sui generis existence, and pagan religious rituals began to register heavily on the channels of my stereotype-resistance radar. The space that Myrna fills, so detached from any engagement beyond her fellow villagers, is a lonely space. The space to which mammies are exiled.
By the time I got to the sixth book, Bury Your Dead, I thought (hoped, prayed) we’d moved past the “fat, black, wise woman” meme as Myrna’s sole identification. Early in this book, she’s introduced simply as a friend “who ran the new and used bookstore next door” (39). Later, she’s just a person contributing to the everyday back and forth in the café as she and friends sip hot chocolate in the middle of winter playing fantasy games about luxury trips to the Caribbean. I found myself tensing up in anxious hope that Myrna’s race and size wouldn’t be mentioned. It takes over 200 pages, but Penny has to drag in weight for this scene set in an exercise class, although she omits race:
Clara was always happy to exercise close to Myrna, since any number of sins, and sounds, could be blamed on her. And she was easy to hide behind. The entire class could hide behind Myrna (237).
In such a lyrical book that sings with Penny’s deep understanding of the humanity, decency, and the personal and political flaws of both Québec’s French separatist and Anglo communities, interweaving the contrapuntal lines of a grave trauma suffered by Gamache and his Sûreté officers with an exciting exploration of one of Canada’s prime historical mysteries, why must this discordant note be played? Yet, it’s a brief moment.
But in Trick of the Light, the full-fledged meme returns. As early as page nineteen, Clara, a middle-aged painter panicking at her first solo show in a major art gallery identifies Myrna as
the very large black woman in the bright green caftan standing beside her. It was her friend and neighbor, Myrna Landers. A retired psychologist from Montréal, she now owned the new and used bookstore in Three Pines.
Myrna talks her down with free therapy, helping Clara realize that regardless of anything horrid she can imagine, she will still wake up in the morning with friends, a husband, a life. It’s a tender scene between friends, an intimate moment in the midst of a bustling art show. Why then, must we have this?
She stood right in front of Clara, her bulk blotting out the room . . . . Her body was a perfect green orb, blocking out the sights and sounds (20).
Towards the end of this tale, Gamache and Myrna engage in a profound discussion of whether people can change and, if so, under what circumstances. In this scene, both are equals, respecting each other as professionals. Both ask questions and offer ideas, the give and take is that of intelligent mature adults interacting. In dealing with the issue of alcoholism, the experiences of a trained therapist and of a trained police officer are relevant. Since she’s dealing with Gamache in his role as Chief Superintendent, she offers uncomfortable truths instead of a mammy’s comfort. It is scenes such as this (244–246) that compel readers like me to follow Penny’s art so loyally.
A similar scene happens in The Nature of the Beast, when Armand has to decide whether to continue retirement or take a strenuous new job. Myrna remembers her own decision to leave her therapy practice, leave Montreal, and open her bookstore — a new chapter of her adult life. It seems as if her full personhood can only occur with Armand, after her weight has been the introductory gambit. It seems her profession can never come first.
In The Long Way Home, the main cast is in the village bistro run by a gay male couple that divides responsibilities between the bistro and their nearby bed and breakfast. As always, when Myrna makes her first appearance, weight and race come first: “‘What do you think they’re not talking about?’ asked Myrna. The large black woman took the comfortable wing chair…”(9). It’s only after that that she is allowed to be a person — not the fabled cat— unburdened by the twin warning bells of weight and race hung about her persona.
Chapters later, as she plans a trip with Clara, her best friend in the village, her status as the owner of a small business and her former life as a therapist are eased into the scene. But in the ninth chapter, a mention of Myrna’s backstory occurs:
The heat shimmered off the buildings and bounced off concrete and drilled into the pavement, which gave off the scent of melting asphalt in the heavy humid air.
Myrna found it strangely calming. Her mother’s and grandmother’s comfort smells were cut grass and fresh baking and the subtle scent of line-dried sheets. For Myrna’s generation the smells that calmed were manufactured. Melting asphalt meant summer. VapoRub meant winter, and being cared for. There were Tang and gas fumes and long-gone photocopy ink.
All comforted her, for reasons that beggared understanding, because they had nothing to do with understanding (74).
This rare moment of acknowledging that Myrna had a personal life with family memories even before her time as a psychologist was ten books in the making. This glimpse into her feelings as a person with history continues throughout the train voyage that she and Clara take together. Yes, it’s still about Clara and her needs, now that she is estranged from her husband, but the interaction we witness between the two lonely women is meaningful. In fact, this is one of the most extended and moving appearances Myrna has in the entire Penny oeuvre. Until Chapter 30.
It’s a small moment, almost microscopic, yet the glare of klieg lights could not have made it more obvious to me. The two women had been joking comfortably about Ruth, the cantankerous poet, and Rosa, her duck. When they find out a person they’re seeking routinely leaves his business during the peak of tourist season, Myrna, who has just done exactly that, is appalled:
“He runs a brasserie and he leaves at the height of the tourist season?”
“Can you imagine a business owner doing that?” Clara stared at Myrna until the other woman laughed (263).
“‘Touché, little one,’ said Myrna,” reverting to the stereotypical maternal role just for a moment. Until this moment, they had been friends, equals, with no age difference, no class difference, no race difference, no size difference. Equals. That “little one” felt unusually wrong. Even when I disagree with Penny’s mammy portrayal, it typically makes sense in the context of that point of view. Here, though, it is jarring.
Myrna’s relationship with Armand is also different this time. They are viewed as equals by the pilot of a small commuter aircraft, equal ballast because of their size. And although Gamache is described as a large man, it does not seem to be a defining point of his existence. Likewise, Gabri Dubeau, co-owner of the B&B and bistro with his partner Olivier, is not just large but apparently obese. His size is occasionally mentioned, but almost like Myrna and race, his gay identity is a frequently recurring refrain.
I began to tire of the gay jokes, even the clever bi-lingual wordplay in Bury Your Dead that combines his weight and his sexual orientation:
“Tired?” Myrna asked. Gabri looked it, “Très fatigué.” “It is true,” Ruth plopped down… “he is a fatty gay.”
I began to consider if Penny were not producing a more sophisticated version of the old Lawrence Welk Show where the “Champagne Maestro” gives each person a specific immutable role: Norma Zimmer, the “Champagne Lady” sings one delicate old-fashioned song, one duet, then dances one dance with the Maestro per show; Joe Feeney, the “Irish Tenor”; Anacani, “Our Little Mexican Señorita”; and the lone two black people on the show, Arthur Duncan, a pharmacy student-turned tap dancer, and Paul Humphrey, a drummer.
They were all immensely talented. In fact, Humphrey recorded with artists as diverse and renowned as Marvin Gaye, John Coltrane, and Steely Dan. I could appreciate their individual talents while being sickened by the stereotypes Welk forced on them to earn their daily bread. But Welk, in addition to giving all the main cast members one, took a stereotype for himself. In that way, there was a certain equality.
In Penny’s works, some characters are allowed unique identities. Ruth is single, with the exception of her on-again, off-again relationship with Rosa, the duck, (yes, an actual, living, fly-South-for-winter, duck). But Ruth doesn’t typically give to others. There is no expectation of nurturing or self-sacrifice. In The Nature of the Beast, an important episode from Ruth’s history is revealed, deepening our understanding of her psychological and moral flaws. Part of the story explains who she is in a way that I can’t recall ever scripted for Myrna, although there was one book in which one of Myrna’s former patients is a focal point.
Even Clara gets to step outside her childless, devoted wife, inspired artist, and otherwise ditzy pal, persona, to nurture a local working class family who has suffered a tragedy. I want that for Myrna. I want something beyond the fat, black, mammy figure everybody needs, but who is not allowed to have needs.
Because the Three Pines series is so extended, each of the main cast has been featured, including Clara’s husband, the unobtrusive painter with commercial success who spitefully envies his wife’s belated recognition among internationally respected critics and salons. Perhaps Myrna will have her day. Perhaps the content of her character may someday be unencumbered by the color of her skin or the heft of her frame. Perhaps.
Update: In the midst of ending this piece, I had a chat with a fellow mystery-loving friend. If recollection serves, I introduced her to Penny’s work. Now she returned the favor, making me aware that my care for my elderly parents and new teaching responsibilities had left me two books behind. This is what happens when you no longer live near a specialty mystery bookstore like Houston’s renowned Murder by the Book. I miss Houston. After I outlined the basic premise of this essay, she suggested that my concerns are being addressed, at least a bit, in the most recent books. So I got back to work.
Kingdom of Blind points in the direction of positive change for Myrna. With Armand, she is a major focus of a tale where both share a role in executing a strange will for a stranger with the strangest backstory. Myrna is introduced in the second chapter as a “very astute woman. Who was also a neighbor” (7). It takes almost three whole pages before she is described from another character’s vantage point as somebody he’d never met, “but already didn’t like. She was large and black and a ‘she’. None of those things he found attractive” (9).
This could be seen as a refutation of the mammy meme. The character, Lucien Mercier, a notary public, is portrayed as an stiff-necked, poorly socialized man of dubious character. His negative point of view could be a way of saying it’s bad to stereotype. But, well, you know how they say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing? However much I might want to believe that this characterization signals a retreat from mammy-ing Myrna, I think of all the other times when the characterizations were from the narrator in all her limited omniscient glory.
I also have to consider paralepsis, a rhetorical device I’ve taught my English Comp students. That’s the one where the speaker says he won’t mention something he in the throes of mentioning, as here in Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale.”
The music, the service at the feast,
The noble gifts for the great and small,
The rich adornment of Theseus’s palace
All these things I do not mention now. (Canterbury Tales)
Maybe it’s an unworthy thought, unfair to Penny, but that device could be an effective way to step away without stepping away. But perhaps we could see it more as the rhetorical version of those gums folks chew to ease themselves off tobacco addiction, a more gradual process than quitting meme cigarettes cold turkey.
Whatever, whichever, Myrna’s race and size never reappear in this book, most tellingly, even when she and Armand have to crawl through a tight space on a rescue mission. That scene is what begins to convince me that the addiction might yet be kicked. After all, Agatha Christie used the occasional racist remark in her books up until 1970 when she stopped altogether. Even the most racist characters like the crude Mr. Blundell in her short story “Pearl of Price” from Parker Pyne Investigates  who yells at natives in the Middle East: “Say, you niggers! Change my baggage out of this darned cave and into a tent!,” no longer said things like that. And good people like Hercule Poirot’s friend and partner in crime detection, Superintendent Japp of Scotland Yard, no longer referred to those of Chinese descent, with words like, “Yes, I’d bet on the Chink” (The Big Four ).
As in many other ways, Christie was ahead of her time, but most importantly, for whatever reason, she realized the error of her ways and changed. Permanently. I’m hoping the same for Penny, because I love her books.
But some damage has already been done. Each time Myrna appears, I cringe, waiting for the worst. In A Better Man, which I consider to be the weakest of the series (although better than most writers could achieve), Myrna’s race is never mentioned. And reference to her weight is only in passing (“her considerable derrière”), not in a mocking or excessive focus.
This would seem like significant progress but for three issues. First, when race and size disappear as markers, so do her intellectual credentials. Her professional identification is limited to “bookstore owner.” This is particularly problematic because the story’s main narrative centers on domestic abuse and the psychological issues associated with both the abuser and the abused. What better opportunity could there be for Armand to seek Myrna’s counsel? As she and the other villagers discuss this societal quagmire, her superior knowledge of human behavior based on years of study and practice as a successful therapist is erased for those reading this volume without benefit of its predecessors.
Second, is a return to one aspect of mammydom, that of a “sexless” existence. Kingdom sees a manual labor villager, Billy Williams, and his budding romantic interest in Myrna, an interest to which she is initially oblivious. In A Better Man, she begins to notice, but is clearly uncomfortable and seeks to remain distanced from him. On the one hand, to dismiss a chance at romance seems unfortunate, but on the other, why would Penny choose an uneducated laborer whose rural accent is so heavy he can barely be understood, for a highly educated, lucid professional woman? Does this relate to her disappearing credentials?
Third, is the oddest of all. The exceedingly mono-racial worlds of Three Pines and the Sûreté, are stretched by the addition of two black women. Madeleine Toussaint, a woman of Haitian descent, is now Chief Superintendent, a role in which Armand served before he was demoted, a role for which he recommended her. Dominica Oddly, a New Yorker with long dreadlocks and combat boots, is the editor of a highly influential online magazine of art criticism.
While I would normally welcome a splash of color in an otherwise snow-white global view, neither of these women exhibit the most appealing traits of Penny’s main characters — kindness and decency. Both are cruel. Toussaint, to whom Armand has only ever been supportive, betrays her mentor out of venal cowardice and insecurity, while Oddly, who is not an artist herself, destroys Clara’s career just because she can. Referring to a recurring quotation from Moby Dick heard throughout the book, “all truth with malice in it,” Reine-Marie responds to Oddly’s cop-out that she’s just telling the truth when she says Clara’s latest work is appalling, by telling her that if she owns the truth, she has to “also own the malice” (347).
Both of these women serve as metaphors for that old adage, “power corrupts.” Both are painted as morally and ethically weak, as undeserving of the authority they have. While Myrna’s credentials are erased, the two new characters’ credentials are eroded. But they are not mammies. Perhaps mono-racial was better after all.
Unlike the critics, like the fictional Oddly, who reverse their opinions on works they once thought good because of subsequent works that don’t match the past standard, I will continue to read Penny’s work despite this most recent work, with its (comparatively) drab plotting, obvious solutions left unaddressed, and weak threads splayed in all directions. And I will continue to wonder if Clara Morrow is to Penny what Ariadne Oliver is to Agatha Christie — an emerging self-portrait, the self-portrait of an artist who, like all of us, is a human being, whose art will fluctuate with the vicissitudes of life’s circumstances and personal growth. I hold out hope.
Update: After 130 years, Quaker Oats, currently a subsidiary of PepsiCo, has suddenly realized that the name and image of Aunt Jemima were based on the racist “mammy” stereotype. They are removing both.