In celebration of Black History Month this year, the literary world has received a long-overdue contemporary novel dealing with America’s ongoing struggle with racism. It’s a tale of interracial love and the quest for justice and truth, told from both sides of the tracks, black and white. Entitled, “The Snake in the Garden,” this historical novel was penned by first-time author Deborah Hand-Cutler and initially inspired by the real-life stories of Brenda Sutton Turner – an African-American singer-songwriter who grew up in Texarkana, Arkansas, in the time of Jim Crow.
Deborah and Brenda were introduced by mutual friend, Wendy Dale Young, who strongly believed that the riveting stories Brenda was colorfully conveying to her over coffee needed to be shared with the world. Though Deborah initially wrote a screenplay from the material, it was obvious that the story should be expanded into a novel. A richer character backstory and an academically researched, real-life history would add depth to the subject matter – particularly viewed from the perspective of the election of America’s 45th president and the subsequent uprising of blatant bigotry in the country.
“The Snake in the Garden” is an explosive depiction of racism in twentieth-century America. Black-white relationships over four generations are examined in this story of two women – one black, one white – growing up in a de facto segregated Arkansas. The novel pays homage to Kate Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby,” and encompasses the turbulent night of the Kennedy Assassination in 1963, the Hollywood music scene of the 1970s and ’80s, and the still-troubled racial attitudes of 1993.
“The underlying message of the novel is that racism hurts everyone,” Deborah explains. “In order to get that point across, I needed fully developed white characters as well as blacks. There’s a lot of Brenda in the book, but it’s not only about her recollections of life in the Jim Crow South. I grew up in Studio City, California. My parents were not racists, but some of the people around us were. We had neighbors, for instance, who had come from the South. I didn’t understand when I was a child how they could think the way they did about other people, but I was able to incorporate their attitudes and even a quote from one of them into the book. And while I know that as a white person, there’s only so much I can ultimately understand about the racism Brenda endured, I could relate to certain levels of her anger and humiliation from some of the ways I was treated as a woman in the pre-feminist, male-dominated world when I was beginning a journalism career.”
Reflecting on her own journey, Brenda relates, “When I left Texarkana, I experienced so many new things, but I could never forget how we were treated in Arkansas. All my time in Los Angeles, I was always reminiscing about my childhood with my older siblings, my husband and my children. I actually loved Texarkana, and it will always be a part of me – the good and the bad. But telling my stories publicly didn’t occur to me for the longest time — not even in my songwriting. I’m excited that it’s happening now.”
Both Deborah and Brenda would like to see “The Snake in the Garden” used in high schools and colleges as a contemporary take on race in America. The book is full of teachable elements that are ripe for discussion, and a teacher’s guide is in the works. “We can’t let this all be forgotten,” says Brenda, “and it’s simply time for racism to end.”
As a historical novel, “The Snake in the Garden” takes the reader into the lives of those who lived under the Jim Crow laws, as well as those who participated in the Civil Rights Movement with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some of King’s religious views are incorporated, along with other historical milestones such as Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
The novel also depicts the racial divide in Los Angeles during the same time period, including the fact that perceived liberal California in the 1960s contained “sundown cities,” in which blacks had to be off the street by sundown. “Learning about our past so that it will not be repeated is vital if we are ever going to be able to kick the snake of racism out of what was intended to be a Garden of Eden,” Deborah states.
Ultimately, Brenda and Deborah hope that “The Snake in the Garden” will encourage all of us to view all people with respect, as true brothers and sisters. (http://www.thesnakeinthegarden.com)
“The Snake In The Garden” is available on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2GwOadR.