Gus and Emma Jean Peace marry for less than perfect reasons (neither has expectations that they will be able to get a better marriage partner) in 1930′s Arkansas , and start a family increasingly populated with boys. Emma Jean, desperate to have a girl child on whom she can lavish the love that she never had growing up, decides that her seventh male child will be raised as a girl, Perfect Peace. Miraculously, her plan proceeds without incident until Perfect’s eighth birthday when Emma Jean decides that it is time to tell her son, their family and their community that every one’s favored little girl…isn’t.
Gus, Emma Jean and Perfect are the characters in the novel who are the most clearly portrayed. Emma Jean is wracked by insecurity and self-hatred instilled by her mother, but it was a little hard, and in fact took most of the novel to get at her reasoning for why she acted as she did. Black seems to be hinting at the desperation that self loathing can cause, leaving Emma Jean with an overwhelming need to have a female child in order to recreate her own childhood, but without the restraint to see the limitations on her plans. Gus has always suffered in his family for being sensitive and likely to cry, but he has difficulty finding compassion for the change that his son has to make.
Perfect is left to suffer through the transition from the softer female world, where he felt special, to the one of men, where he finds little support support. His sexuality is forever suspect, and his family can only think to bring him into line as a man through means of brutality. The reactions by Perfect’s family and his community are sad, but in line with the gender roles and homophobia within family and community at that time. Black did an excellent job portraying this black community, their church life, the interconnectedness of their friendships and their feuds. There were a multitude of storylines among the supporting characters and most of them were of interest to me, but there were too many characters to give them more than a cursory overview and the characterizations and dialogue suffered in those places.
Perfect Peace is an ambitious novel, tackling a number of complex issues – perception of skin tone and self- loathing in the black community, gender identity, nature vs. nurture, faith, poverty, limited education, and homophobia, just to name a few. It struggles a bit under the weight of those ambitions, and is particularly hindered by a large cast of characters and a wide focus that diffuses what had the potential to be an even more powerful novel than it becomes. Yet it is still a novel that I enjoyed reading, and which offered quite a bit of food for thought, though I wish the author had explored more deeply. Black might have accomplished this with fewer characters (particularly if there were less brothers, of whom I had a hard time keeping track). While the story is not without flaws, I would be hard pressed to dismiss such a bold and original accounting on a subject fraught with tension from many angles.