- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2011

 

SWEET JIMINY
By Kristin Gore
Hyperion, $23.99, 240 pages

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, who desegregated public transportation by traveling on buses in the Southern states, where Jim Crow practices restricted black Americans to back seats only. Not surprisingly, commemorations of this effort have raised interest in other struggles of the civil rights era, prompting TV programs, feature articles and books about the period.

Kristin Gore’s novel, “Sweet Jiminy,” is among them. Its heroine, Jiminy Davis, drops out of law school and, hoping to find a way forward in her life, goes to stay with her grandmother in Fayeville, Miss. Soon she learns that her unusual first name was shared with the daughter of her grandmother’s black servant, Lyn. The first Jiminy was renowned for her looks, her charm and her smarts. At age 17, she and her father, Edward, were killed as he was driving her home from an essay competition.


Learning about the earlier Jiminy naturally startles her namesake, and the more so when she learns that Edward was her grandfather’s friend as well as his employee and tenant. Perhaps there’s some connection. Her grandmother is not willing to talk about the deaths, and neither is anyone else in town, but a little investigation shows that everyone knows they were racially motivated. They also know who did the killing. Nonetheless, the local police refused to investigate the deaths, let alone prosecute the murderers, who still live in the town.

As Jiminy is learning all this, she is also getting involved with Bo, Lyn’s great-nephew, who is studying for his Medical College Admission Test. As they get closer, many Fayeville people make it clear they will not tolerate the relationship. When Jiminy and Bo are hijacked on a dangerous road, Jiminy decides to make it her job to discover who killed the earlier Jiminy and her father, while Lyn realizes that Bo and other young black men are still in danger and agrees to pursue the murderers.

At this point, readers might well expect a kind of detective story that unmasks the criminals and brings them to justice. Ms. Gore only partly delivers this. Jiminy does some work in the local library, then brings in a lawyer who already has successfully resolved several similar cases. But these pages unravel little of the past because most local folks who know something fess up with little prompting. Few readers, therefore, will feel much curiosity about what the next clue will reveal, and no one is likely to be on tenterhooks as the denouement approaches.

There is, though, the story of Jiminy and Bo. They seem made for each other: Both are young, talented, eager to find careers that will help them shape the world - and they are attracted to each other. Fears of miscegenation being what they are, questions hang over them. Perhaps the novel will be about star-cross’d love? Again, the answer is not really. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, Jiminy and Bo act sensibly.

Jiminy is unsure of herself, which sometimes translates into a flakiness that makes it hard to believe in her activism. Bo is not much more than a good-natured hunk. Ms. Gore succeeds better with the older generation. The grandmother generation of the novel, including Lyn, Jiminy’s grandmother Willa, and her friend Jean, are more clearly focused as interesting, sometimes quirky, individuals. And the older men in Jiminy’s family have the crankiness of big, old, mean bears. Indeed, the only point when this novel fires readers’ fears is when these dangerous guys lumber onto its pages.

“Sweet Jiminy” lacks thematic complexity. She beats up on herself for dropping out of law school and needs to find something that will give her life meaning. Her pursuit of the killers provides this, and it also reveals more about her family, but her character is so weakly sketched that a meaningful future seems more hope than likelihood. As for the pursuit of justice and true love, while they give structure to the novel, Ms. Gore offers nothing new in her treatment of them.

One reason for the less-than-powerful effect of “Sweet Jiminy” is that the pace of the first few chapters is rather leisurely. But as soon as Jiminy contacts the out-of-town expert on opening old cases, things go lickety-split, with little time for the intricate plotting or development of theme and character that could have made this novel more gripping. As we have it, it is a quick read, mildly interesting rather than absorbing, at best a useful reminder of historical events whose effects live on.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.