Unlike some writers, who might use a novel as a vehicle to drive an agenda, Bev Marshall says her primary ambition with her new novel, Right as Rain, was to tell an entertaining tale. And she does just that by presenting a sprawling Southern epic that covers a number of years and generations and crosses racial lines.
The book is set on a farm in Zebulon, Miss., during the 1950s and '60s, and follows the lives of three families. The Parsons, a white family, own the acreage; two black families run the farm and the Parsons household. Two strong-willed matriarchs head those latter families: Tee Wee, who is the Parsons' cook, and Icey, the maid. They are next-door neighbors and are fiercely competitive, spiteful as little children, eternally jealous of the other's life, and the best of friends. For Marshall, who is white, to fully describe their relationship and their lives as black women during this turbulent time of segregation and emerging civil rights, she had to tell it from their point of view. This didn't prove difficult for Marshall, a native of McComb, Miss., who grew up among blacks and whites. Throughout Right as Rain, one can sense the bond between the author and her characters.
"It's a woman-to-woman thing," explains Marshall from her home in Pontchatoula. "There are pieces of a woman that only another woman can understand. That friendship and rivalry between Tee Wee and Icey is present in many women's relationships. We revel in it; we need it. Black women and white women's hearts are the exact same color."
Their circumstances are often quite different. The Parsons live in a large house with two well-pampered children. Tee Wee and her husband and six children, and Icey, a single mother with three children, live in the farm's tenant houses, each of which has only four small rooms. But for Icey, who has just moved to Parsons Place, her new surroundings represent, as Marshall writes, "more than she'd ever had before -- a roof that looked like it wouldn't leak, and most wondrous of all, electricity!"
This improvement is only the beginning for Icey and her family. Walking to work one day, Icey tells Tee Wee how she needs a man to help pay the rent. Tee Wee consoles Icey by telling her a man will come along soon: "Yep, they's like rain. Just when you thinks your beans is gonna dry up, along comes a thunderstorm and drowns 'em." Concerned for her new friend, Tee Wee arranges for her husband's cousin, Deke, to approach Icey with a proposal to share her house, bills and, eventually, her bed. Icey eagerly agrees.
Even though the book is narratively driven and could easily been told in first person, Marshall, who formerly taught writing at Southeastern Louisiana University, chose to employ multiple points of view. As the novel progresses through the years, she shifts from character to character, white and black, male and female. She says it became a matter of listening to what the characters were telling her and not worrying about particular themes.
"When a book is given to the public, it's ultimately up to the reader to ferret out whatever they wish from it." Marshall says. "I'm a storyteller -- that's my role. The voices that I heard, including the African-American ones, were saying, 'Tell my story.' Initially, I wasn't aware what they had to say -- I was just telling their story. Obviously, I agreed with what they thought or I probably wouldn't have written it."
Marshall's confidence in what she was "hearing" -- coupled with her ability as a novelist to organize and direct a conflict-laden plot over many years and situations -- make Right as Rain a compelling novel. However, even as certain as she is now about her characters and their stories, she admits that her resolution teetered during the eight years she spent writing the book. It was then, as Marshall relates in her lilting Mississippi accent, that a Louisiana literary giant stepped in to assuage her distress.
"While I was still working on the novel, I went to a writer's conference. Ernest Gaines had been part of a panel and afterwards I fearfully approached him and told him about the novel and how I was writing in these black voices. I asked his opinion, and, with his eyes cutting into me, he said, 'Do you think my white characters are good?' I said, 'Definitely.' He asked me if I thought he had a right to write about them and I answered, 'Yes sir.' He said, 'Well then quit your worrying and write your story.' And that's what I did."