Summer seems to be a good time for reading B novels. I mentioned Off Course as an example of "Loser Lit" in the previous post (English Lit Newly Lit). Quaker Cafe by Brenda Bevan Remmes is a less painful read, at least in terms of content. Off Course is stylistically superior, but Quaker Cafe is definitely more fun to read.
For one thing, there are lots of hilariously entertaining scenes involving family and social dynamics in a small Southern town, which was founded by Quakers, but is now dominated by mainstream Christian denominations, both black and white. The white population is largely conservative; the few liberals in town stick together and represent both Quakers and Methodists. The differences make for good humor, but the core of the story is very serious, involving family secrets, racial injustice, and a community with deep divisions.
Liz Hoole is from St. Paul, MN, but married a Quaker and has lived for decades in her husband's North Carolina hometown. Husband Chase runs the family pharmacy, and Liz works for the Red Cross, where she discovers some medical information about a friend, which she must keep confidential.
Without revealing too much, let's just say Liz gets tangled up in her friend, Maggie’s, medical situation, which has implications, not only for Maggie, but also for Liz’s family and the whole community. As history that has been covered up for years gradually unravels, Liz struggles to help Maggie, support her own family, and maintain her professional confidentiality.
The truth opens up old wounds of racial injustice, threatens the fabric of relationships, and calls for confession and penance. At this point we see a process of reconstructive justice work its way through families, churches, and community, a process based in Quaker and African American church traditions, as well as shared human experience.
What makes it a B novel? Well, there is nothing really noteworthy about the style, the plot, or the characters, not that there's anything terribly bad about them either. The dialogue sounded a bit artificial to me in places, though occasionally, having grown up in the South, I thought I heard a Southern style and cadence that sounded very authentic. A structural masterstroke is telling the story from the point of view of a quasi-outsider. Though Liz has lived in the South for many years, she's not a native and is more removed from the town's history than the other characters. As such, she invites the non-Southerner into the narrative and provides a more distanced, balanced perspective. So, a good novel, not a great one, but a good one.
Even a B novel, though, can verge on greatness. Read at face value, it doesn't rise to that level, but if one takes a slight imaginative leap and reads it allegorically, it takes on measurably more significance.
What if we read it as, not merely the redemptive narrative of one individual and one community, but as a kind of call for restorative justice in the whole South? Of course, the racial injustice in the history of the South is no secret, but we have only to reflect on the recent defense of the Confederate flag as a symbol of "heritage" and "regional pride" to consider the depth of Southern denial about its own history. Could the individual story of injustice and redemption in Quaker Cafe represent a call for regional assumption of historical responsibility, confession, and atonement? Does the model of restorative justice represented in the novel offer the vision for a path by which the stark divisions of the American South might be healed?
Perhaps that is a stretch, but surely no more so than acknowledging the human universality of the redemptive story and the shared human yearning for healing and wholeness.
We should also acknowledge that at the end of Quaker Cafe, not all are redeemed; the dead are still dead, and they died without learning the truth. Not all justice can be restored, but the novel holds out hope for the human capacity of accepting responsibility, making amends, and achieving some measure of peace.