Changing Minds at the Talbot County Free Library

September 13, 2017
by Bill Peak

Bill Peak is the communications manager and all-encompassing “Library Guy” at the Talbot County Free Library on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He is the author of the novel “The Oblate’s Confession” (2014). Bill writes a monthly article for The Star-Democrat about working at the Talbot County Free Library.  This essay was originally published in The Star-Democrat on August 6, 2017.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Purple Hibiscus may well be the best book ever chosen to be the One Maryland One Book.  I did not vote for it.

For several years now it has been my privilege to serve on the committee that selects the One Maryland One Book, the program of Maryland Humanities in which people all across the state read the same book at the same time.  I fought long and hard to have the committee choose J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy for this year’s One Maryland One Book.  Don’t get me wrong, though I hadn’t read Purple Hibiscus at that point, I had read Adichie’s Americanah, so I knew she was a talented and gifted storyteller.  But Hillbilly Elegy concerns a subject so topical, so pertinent to the conflicts and pressures roiling America today, that I thought it would appeal to a wide range of Maryland readers.  Adichie’s book on the other hand, judging from what I had found in Americanah, would most likely be a great story of possibly enduring value, but it would just as likely be only marginally related to current events.

Which raises an interesting question.  If you were on a committee that selected the one book a significant number of Marylanders would read all at the same time, which do you think would be better: a book whose subject was on everyone’s lips, or one whose subject, by aiming for something higher, would, perhaps inevitably, be of less interest to the general public?  Which is more important, a book that is so relevant to the moment that we want to rush out and start talking about it with everyone we meet, or one that touches something so deep in us we’re not sure we want to talk about it at all, though we are sure some part of it will remain with us forever?

Adichie’s book falls into the latter category.  There will, no doubt, be those who take one look at the author’s name and, wincing at its foreignness, dismiss our committee’s choice as political correctness.  And, superficially at least, the novel supports such a view.  Purple Hibiscus tells the story of an African family whose life is constricted and deformed by an abusive father and the lingering effects of colonialism.  Furthermore, the book was written by a woman of color, born and raised in Nigeria.  What could be more politically correct?

But to label Purple Hibiscus as just another modern liberal tract would be terribly unfair to both the work and those that might otherwise read it.  The novel is told from the point of view of a fifteen-year-old girl who loves her father and, at the same time, fears him.  Remember what it was like when you were a child, when the world was defined entirely by what you’d learned from mom and dad, your elementary school teachers, and maybe a few scraps picked up from television and friends?  However parochial, it was a straightforward, perfectly understandable view of things.  White was white, black was black, and never the twain should meet.  But, every now and then, a hint of gray crept in and you found yourself feeling awkward and unsure.  This is the voice—tinged with both absolute certainty and harrowing doubt—that Adichie gives her child narrator.  It is alive.  It touches us.  It reminds us not of incidents and places in our childhood but of being a child, what it felt like to be small and insignificant, to exist entirely at the margins of a larger, adult world, to be forever on the receiving end of things.  And it is in this, her narrator’s familiar yet utterly unique voice, that Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus rises above mere composition to become art.

When I began writing this piece, I said I thought Purple Hibiscus might be the best book ever chosen to be the One Maryland One Book.  But writing (like reading) forces one to think hard about the subject at hand, to face facts and, sometimes, to admit error.  And so I’d like to amend that earlier statement.  Purple Hibiscus is far and away the best book ever chosen to be the One Maryland One Book.  On Monday, September 11, at 6:30 p.m., in our library’s Easton branch, and again on Thursday, September 14, at 2:30 p.m., in the St. Michaels branch, I will host a discussion of this remarkable, demanding, astonishing work of art.  Won’t you join me?

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