Zora and Me
by Victoria Bond & T.R. Simon
This exquisite novel tells of a pivotal time, just at the start of fourth grade, and how the events of that summer and early fall forever change narrator Carrie Brown and her best friend, the young Zora Neale Hurston.
Mostly, it is a moving story of friendship. But it is also a mystery. Carrie metes out information in a way that invites us to piece together ourselves the mystery at hand and also the complex world outside of Eatonville (“the first incorporated all-black township in the United States,” as an endnote explains). She and Zora witness an out-of-town welder who plans to best the legendary alligator Ghost. Unfortunately Ghost gets the best of the welder, then disappears. Zelda will not discuss the death of the welder, but in the schoolyard, she spins a tall tale about Mr. Pendir, a carpenter who once outsmarted three gators and lives near the Blue Sink, her favorite swimming hole. Zora claims she saw him standing on his porch with the head of an alligator: “Mr. Pendir is a gator man—man body, gator head!” How else does one explain Ghost’s disappearance?
But after Ivory, a kindly traveling turpentine worker, turns up dead, Carrie and Zora begin to suspect there’s something a whole lot more dangerous than a “gator man” behind the events. The girls come to know all too abruptly the subtle and overt horrors at work in the Jim Crow South. But they are also surrounded by the wonders of nature, such as the Loving Pine, their friend Teddy, and caring adults. Carrie and Zora pursue the truth, but it does not end there. Knowing the truth, they are equally committed to doing what they must to keep Eatonville safe. And that changes them irrevocably. As Mrs. Hurston tells them, “The folks who protect where they come from always have a place to come back to. But more than that—they always have a place to take with them.” What powerful armor for a child to carry with her. The authors thoughtfully raise themes in ways that young people can grapple with them, to talk about how our sense of home and belonging shape who we are, and how we must respect ourselves before we can respect others.