A Sense of Place in Dori Sanders' CloverLaura M. Zaidman
Kenneth L. Donelson and Alleen Pace Nilsen's Literature for Today's Young Adults defines young adult literature as any book freely chosen by someone between twelve and twenty (p. 2). This certainly describesDori Sanders' Clover (1990). Narrated by ten-year-old Clover Hill, the book has been marketed for adults but enjoyed by teenagers as well.Clover's popularity with teens was evident when Clover [South Carolina]High School students told Sanders during her September, 1990, visit how much they liked the book's realism, humor, and honesty. Not only high school students but also college students agree that the book appeals to teenage readers. My children's literature students who read the novel and heardSanders lecture in October, 1990, considered Clover an excellent choice for young adult reading lists.
Attractively packaged in a colorful jacket, this 183-page book is accessible to young readers. The first-person point of view offers an immediacy of shared experiences and an authenticity of voice; also, its details of setting and characterization ring true. Although Sanders offers entertaining, humorous comments, she presents challenging, serious themes of parental death and racial prejudice. Because the canon of American literature includes relatively few black women writers and few portrayals of interracial families, Cloverwould be a good choice in the classroom to encourage dialogue about both the unusual plot (a white stepmother raising a black child) and the theme of racial and cultural stereotypes.
Sanders provides a fascinating look into the progress of the New South. Driving down Highway 321 in upstate South Carolina between York and Clover, one can see Sanders' Peach Stand, where the author sells peaches, watermelons, and vegetables. When Clover garnered enthusiastic reviews in the major newspapers across the country, Sanders could not believe her sudden fame. Having made the front cover of B. Dalton's Discover Great New Writers, she admitted, "I tell you it's just amazing. Me, a peach farmer from Filbert... why, it's just hard to comprehend that all of this is happening." Yet she continues to work the land from sunup to sundown because "once the dirt gets under your fingernails, you can't give it up." Indeed, Sanders' authentic voice in Clover convincingly demonstrates the Southern farmer's love of the land.
"A Sense of Belonging Somewhere"
Eudora Welty identifies "a sense of belonging somewhere, to a part of the country" as an especially strong characteristic in Southern people. She observes that, if you understand where you live and the people around you, you can better understand other people; thus, instead of cutting you off, a sense of place liberates you.
Sanders shares this belief in a close identification with a specific geographical area having its own unique cultural heritage and language. That quality makes her rural South Carolinian characters believable. Noted Southern writer Ernest J. Gaines pointed out that Sanders "really sees well, nature and people, and she can describe the emotions of a young girl with the best of them." A Publishers Weekly review compares Sanders' Southerners to those of Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and Zora Neale Hurston.
By portraying familiar people and places -- such as the rural peach farm where she grew up, near Rock Hill, South Carolina -- Sanders creates believable content. To add realism, Sanders mentions specific things and places. She mentions the Charlotte Observer. She mentions Clemson University. She mentions the cities of Columbia and Charleston. She mentions the small towns of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway ("Norway was so little, you could spit clean across it" [p. 172]). The fictional Round Hill setting of the story is not much of an imaginative leap from Rock Hill, and real people inspired the story's characters. Clover's father, a school principal and peach farmer, was modeled after Sanders' father, also a principal and peach farmer. She makes her characters realistic by linking them closely to their cultural heritage, their land, and their family.
A Story of the New South
Sanders explores a segment of the modern-day South through the eyes of Clover, a perceptive black girl. Three days before the narrative begins, Clover's father, Gaten Hill, had married a white woman, Sara Kate, and hours later he was killed in a car accident. The narration goes back and forth in time as the confused child deals with this traumatic death and with her strange stepmother, who resolutely accepts responsibility for Clover because she promised Gaten she would. However, Sara Kate steps in against the wishes of the Hills, the rest of Clover's family. Clover's Uncle Jim Ed and Aunt Everleen, who work the family's peach orchard, distrust this "uppity," "Miss High-and-mighty" outsider. Working the family peach stand in the blazing heat while Sara Kate stays home designing textiles, Everleen resents her new sister-in-law. Racial prejudice also creates disharmony, as when Everleen tells her niece that Sara Kate, like "all white women," donates money to animal shelters only "because they feel so guilty over the way their people treated us. They think by being extra kind to animals, it'll get them into heaven"(pp. 68-69).
As a way to emphasize differences in backgrounds, Sanders points out that the divergent cultural perspectives of blacks and whites clash when it comes to food. Contrasting tastes in food emphasize the cultural differences that threaten to keep Sara Kate an outsider. Whether at large family gatherings, the wedding feast, the wake, or everyday meals, food reflects family traditions, regional habits, and racial differences. The first time Sara Kate eats at a Hill family gathering, not wanting to offend anyone, she eats everything offered to her, including fish cooked in boiling grease, biscuits, ham, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, and fried chicken.
Although fascinated at the spectacle of Sara Kate's eating like a crazy person just to make a good impression, Clover sympathetically brings her a foaming glass of Alka-Seltzer and cold, damp cloth for her forehead when she gets "sick as a dog." Sara Kate has much to learn; she doesn't even know that "mountain oysters" are pig, sheep, or bull testicles. But, seeing her father's happiness, Clover grudgingly accepts Sara Kate. That is not to say Clover feels comfortable with the clash of black and white cultures. At her father's funeral, Clover describes how Sara Kate is squeezed in between her and Jim Edon the crowded bench for Gaten's funeral "like vanilla cream between dark chocolate cookies" (p. 22). Then the child considers this irony: her daddy is dead and all she can think of is an Oreo cookie. At this point, however, she sees Sara Kate, not as an individual but only as the striking differences between vanilla and chocolate.
Partly responsible for Clover's emotional conflicts, Everleen confuses her niece with mixed messages about Sara Kate. On the one hand, she tells Clover,"You'd better eat with your daddy's wife tonight. I'm sick and tired of all the junk food your uncle piles in at this stand. If you drink another Pepsi you gonna turn into one. It's not good for you. I believe in a balanced nutritious diet." On the other hand, Clover knows her aunt doesn't know "beans about a balanced meal. Not a woman who cooked macaroni and cheese, corn pudding, fried okra, potato salad, turnip greens, candied yams, and fried chicken for an ordinary Sunday dinner" (p. 58).
Everleen, while approving of Sara Kate's cooking, vents her frustration at this woman's sudden intrusion in her family: "Now remember, Clover ... we never repeat the things we talk about here at the peach shed. This is family talk."The aunt continues, "Now, remember Sara Kate is family, so be nice and tell her[that] her cooking tastes real, real good. You know how white women are. They want you to brag on `em all the time. To tell them you love `em. They don't care whether it's the truth or not" (p. 59).
In still another instance of contradictory messages, Everleen admonishes Clover not to hurt Sara Kate's feelings. Thus, having been told that most white women"have been sheltered and petted all their lives. The least little thing just tears them up," Clover lies about her stepmother's watery grits and chicken swimming in tomatoes and green peppers: "This chicken is some kind of good, Sara Kate" (p. 64).1
Differences in clothes reflect still another contrast in lifestyle, as seen when the novel opens with this symbolic clash of black and white:
They dressed me in white for my daddy's funeral. White from my head to my toes. I had the black skirt I bought at the six-dollar store all laid out to wear. I'd even pulled the black grosgrain bows off my black patent leather shoes to wear in my hair. But they won't let me wear black. I know deep down in my heart you're supposed to wear black to a funeral. I guess the reason my stepmother is not totally dressed in black is because she just plain doesn't know any better. (p. 1)
Clover's annoyance at the white dress suggests the deeper anger at being thrust into the care of a white stranger who does not have the good sense to know proper attire for a funeral.
Yet the cultural clash is not as simple as black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. Even though Clover and her relatives admire how the very attractive Merlee Kenyon, Gaten's former girlfriend, dresses in "tight white pants, red, red, blouse and high-heeled red sandals," they are quick to recognize that she would not fit into the Hill family because she wasn't about to take on a ready-made family and, having earned a master's degree in music, spend the best years of her life taking care of someone else's child, especially a child who got on her nerves. On the other hand, Clover overhears Sara Kate telling Gaten about what a beautiful little girl Clover is. Clover confesses, "this woman's got the smarts to say the right thing at the right time. She may not have wanted me any more than Miss Kenyon.... [but] she had sense enough not to say it" (p. 51).
Not only is Sara Kate a stranger to this region, but also being white, well-educated, and well-dressed makes her even more the outsider in the black farming community. Clover hears the women talk about Sara Kate:
"Can't you just die from all that beige and taupe she's wearing?"
"Girl, them some Gloria Vanderbilt's pants."
"Aw shucks now, go on, girl."
"Wonder what's wrong with her?"
"I don't know, but there is something that's caused her to be rejected by her own men."
"Well, something's wrong with her. Why else would she take up with a black dude?" (p. 42)
But this gossip does not totally prejudice Clover, for she likes the way her father and Sara Kate act together: "They are not all over each other, hugging and kissing like some courting people. Every now and again she touches him when he is near, her hand lightly touching his, or an elbow resting on his knee" (p.43).
As Clover gradually accepts her stepmother's love, it is as if her father were reaching out from the grave to comfort and assure her that she will be in good hands. The turning point of the story occurs after Clover defiantly curses Sara Kate about her cooking. When Everleen sides with her sister-in-law and makes Clover apologize, Clover begins to understand her stepmother's sincere devotion. The rest of the family and the community then open their hearts to Sara Kate when she saves Jim Ed's life by giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation after he's stung by yellow jackets in the peach orchard.
This book celebrates the growing acceptance of differences in skin color, food, clothing, and values. Sanders' metaphor of growth ties all the literary elements into an aesthetic whole. Indeed, the title's image suggests this organic growth: clover enriches the soil for more valuable pasturage justas Clover enriches the Hill family life. The peach orchard that remains at the center of the family heritage of proud traditions and close ties is aptly pictured on the book jacket with bountiful peaches and beautiful peach blossoms.
A Sense of Place Can Liberate
The novel concludes with the characters' resolving cultural clashes and bridging various gaps that separate them. Insights into each other's behavior allow Sara Kate, Clover, and the rest of the family to change their racial attitudes; they begin to empathize with each other without the cultural blinders of stereotypes. The blossoming peach orchard works well as a metaphor for this family's growth toward a common humanity. Certainly Cloveroffers young adults the chance to be liberated from the narrow confines of their own culture so they can celebrate individual differences. Sanders thus supports quite well the truth of Welty's point that a strong allegiance to place need not isolate people, for they can transcend racial and cultural differences. In this sense, students can see that Southern literature is not only for Southerners, nor is black literature only for blacks.Clover is a timely novel for today's society -- one no longer segregated but still challenged by racial distrust.
1. The writer herself knows about facing unfamiliar food. According toElizabeth Kastor in the Washington Post, Sanders' tastes in food are those of Southern country people, so when she went to New York to promoteClover, she was "confronted by an assortment of mysterious and trendy objects residing in a New York salad." Sanders admits, "the only kind of lettuce I really like is iceberg ... and there wasn't any iceberg at all. Some of the things in this salad looked like flowers, and then there were these endives" she wasn't supposed to eat. Sanders' Northern host told her, "No, Dori, it's not red cabbage, it's raaadicchiooo!" -- as Sanders tells the story, embellishing the foreign, elegant-sounding word. No wonder she can imagine Clover's misery when forced to eat Sara Kate's strange cooking.
Laura M. Zaidman, Professor of English at the University of South Carolinaat Sumter, teaches courses in children's literature, composition, and American literature.