by Katharine Armbrester
When Stars Rain Down by Angela Jackson-Brown is a heartfelt and engrossing novel about the coming of age of Opal Pruitt, a sensitive and courageous young African-American domestic worker. Many changes are ahead for Opal, including first love and devastating loss, along with coming face to face with the horrors of racism during a hot summer in Depression Era Georgia.
Opal is about to turn eighteen, and is looking forward to the return of Jimmy Earl Ketchums from college, who has been her friend since childhood, despite being white and the son of her employer. His return stirs up confusing feelings in Opal, especially when the handsome and wayward preacher’s son, Cedric Perkins, asks to “court” her.
This is not a typical romance with a dull love triangle; Jackson-Brown has crafted a narrative with a tender-hearted and unlikely heroine. Opal, who despite having no parents, who willingly admits “school just wasn’t my thing,” is wise beyond her years, and is supported by a loving extended family headed by her warm and deeply religious Granny.
The character of Opal is the book’s first triumph. Jackson-Brown wanted to portray a female domestic with dignity, and she certainly accomplished this with Opal—who is sweet-natured and feminine, but is absolutely not a “Mary Sue” or a pushover in any way. She will undoubtedly be an inspiration for any young female readers of this book, who will be inspired by her strong faith, captivated by her sense of style and romantic spirit, and be reassured those seasons of emotional upheaval, heartbreak and doubt are a part of maturing as an adult.
An important part of When Stars Rain Down is the sense of community, which many readers will undoubtedly relish in our current atmosphere of technological sophistication and ensuing isolation. Opal lives in “Colored Town,” where the African-American citizens of the fictional town of Parsons reside. It’s a place where everyone knows about, gossips about, and cares about everyone else. Where “Not a one of us was rich, but we had all that we ever needed, and that was each other.” This community, centered around the church and girded by tradition, is vital to survival, especially as it is revealed that the Ku Klux Klan is riding into town.
Jackson-Brown’s depiction of the white characters in the novel, and her vivid portrayal of how racism creeps into and poisons even the most ordinary interactions, are two of the most important aspects of the novel. Opal has known the white Ketchum family her entire life, and she loves them as they genuinely love her.
Opal’s changing feelings for Jimmy Earl are not only disorienting, but dangerous in the Jim Crow South, and his vicious cousin Rafe is a Klan member. Rafe’s hatred for African-Americans will lead to not one, but two devastating violent encounters with Opal. Absolutely none of the Ketchum family members are one dimensional, and eventually they all, in various ways, illustrate the great wrong that ensues from racism and oppression, which, of course, both result from unrepentant sinfulness.
During this tumultuous summer, Opal begins working for and befriends Miss Lovenia, a healer and a mystic of sorts who Granny suspects of practicing “hoodoo.” Miss Lovenia greets Opal by humbly washing her feet, and is a calm, sensible, and generous soul, for all her divergent beliefs. The discussion of religion in When Stars Rain Down is of the most fascinating, and potentially alienating facets of the novel. Miss Lovenia is obviously the bearer of ancient traditions as well as practical medical knowledge, and as Opal discovers, there is no benefit in being suspicious of or unkind to people who are different from you. There is wisdom and strength in asking other people for help, in being kind, in listening, and to quote 2 Timothy 2:24:
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
Jackson-Brown does not condemn Miss Lovenia’s ways; this is Opal’s story, and she is a lot of growing to do as the novel progresses; questions will be asked but not always answered, just as happens in real life. The friendship between Miss Lovenia and Opal is a powerful reminder that a Christian doesn’t do a bit of good by antagonizing, alienating, or avoiding altogether people who believe differently than we do, for Christ didn’t do so either. We need to do a lot more of breaking bread together with those who are different than us, a great deal more washing of feet.
Along with the deft characterization, the other great triumph of When Stars Rain Down is Jackson-Brown’s obvious dedication to historical accuracy and illuminating lessons from the past that apply to the current day, even at the expense of making her readers feel uncomfortable. In her introduction, Jackson-Brown discloses why she chose to use the “N-word” in her novel:
Even when “that word” was not being spoken out loud, many of the white characters illustrated the power of the word through their actions. My hope is that a day will come when that word and other derogatory words are no longer part of our lexicon, but the way we ensure that happens is by staring back at our collective history without blinking or flinching.
I had the privilege of meeting Angela Jackson-Brown recently, and was glad to hear directly from her that she did not consider her novel geared specifically to young adult readers, simply because of the teenage heroine, or because she did not describe violence with as much graphic detail as she could have chosen to do. Even in a perhaps muted amount of detail, she certainly got across the great evil that racism has wrought in the south.
However, despite that horror, there are many wonderful moments in When Stars Rain Down, moments that both older and younger readers will greatly enjoy. There is the power of young love, as Cedric genuinely repents his ways and is drawn back to church for love of Opal, and baseball games where both men and women dress up in their best. The inhabitants of Colored Town are playful and protective, and there is laughter as well as tears.
When Stars Rain Down is a warm and lovingly written book with multiple endearing characters and a powerful message. It is just as valuable and moving a novel as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and it should be required reading along with that classic novel, for it is an immensely valuable depiction of the same period from the perspective of a Christian African-American woman. The entire novel is a powerful reminder of Psalm 34:14: “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.”
Katharine Armbrester is in the MFA creative writing program at the Mississippi University for Women. She is a devotee of Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Atwood and fully intends to be an equally disconcerting playwright—she thinks Alabama needs one.