We’ve either completely derailed as a society, or we’ve come so far from an agrarian culture that no one, and I mean no one, seemed to realize that the title of the book I’ve been reading for the past month refers to a garden implement used for breaking up soil….
Every single person who saw me reading this book from professors to family members to my freaking doctor all looked at the cover with incredulity and went “um…the polished…ho?” NO! NO, people! No. This book is about slavery; about marginalization and colonialism. This book is about the horror and mistreatment of women. This book narrates what happens when humanity is pushed too far. It is not about a loose woman! I mean, maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m the weird person, because when I picked up this book, my first thought was “oh, a polished garden implement. I wonder what this book’s about.”
This book was excellent. Part of my personal challenge for CBR 9 is reading more female protagonists and more perspectives that aren’t mine (white, middle-class American), and this book fit both to a tee. “The Polished Hoe” takes place in the West Indies in the late 1940s and follows the narrative of Mary Mathilda Gertrude as she gives a police statement for a crime we’re only vaguely sure she’s committed.
Clarke’s craft is absolutely brilliant as he weaves the story in mostly dialog passing back and forth between Mary Mathilda and the two officers who come to talk to her. Even though this book only covers twelve hours of real-time, Clarke uses Mary Mathilda to tell not just her police statement, but the story of her island of Barbados in its various forms and times, as well as her own personal history.
To give anything away about the characters would completely wreck the slow unveiling of the story, so I won’t spoil it for you here. But it’s a beautiful story that shows Mary Mathilda and the other plantation workers not just as slaves, segregated blacks, or marginalized people, but as humans. Even though it talks heavily of slavery and abuse and misuse, this isn’t a slave narrative. Clarke goes there; he’s not afraid to bring to light the absolute horror that black people live through, and what they’ve always had to endure, but this isn’t a narrative about just that. It’s a narrative about human experience, about the simplicity of the day-to-day and the joy and sorrow of a little colonized town in Barbados. It’s a story of how Mary Mathilda wasn’t allowed to participate in that little town, and the life she lived straddling two worlds that on one hand took care of her and raised her into a position of power, but on the other destroyed her and imprisoned her in a life she could never leave.
If you’re looking for an interesting perspective and don’t know much about Barbados in the 1940s and 50s, I highly recommend this book.