Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon took Zora Neale Hurston’s life as literary inspiration for their joint debut novel, Zora and Me. Framed as a middle-grade mystery, we follow the adventures of a fictionalized Zora through the eyes of her best friend, Carrie. The two curious girls and their friend Teddy are given mostly free rein to explore their small town of Eatonville, Florida. They play in the woods and are often given candy from the owner of the general store, Joe. When an alligator attacks a local man, Zora lets her imagination run wild and concludes that a shapeshifting “gator man” was the real culprit. She tells her tale to anyone in town who would listen, but they all shrug it off. But when a mysterious stranger named Ivory is murder, Carrie and Teddy start to really believe. The trio met the charming Ivory days before, which makes his death scarier and more real to them. The children attempt to unravel the truth, but what they find leads to their loss of innocence.
I read this in October with my Mocha Girls Read book club. It was nice to have a short but engaging book this time around. I read it in two sittings with the help of the fall Dewey’s Read A Thon. I went in expecting a Nancy Drew-Esque mystery and instead found a darker story about racism and family conflict. Zora’s father and her clash in a memorable scene at the dinner table. He doesn’t care for her tall tales about death. Her mother appears as her protector, which they allude is a frequent occurrence. Carrie’s father is also absent while Teddy’s from a big family. Teddy was a sweetheart with his love of animals. I would protect him with my life.
Most of the adult characters in the book come off with a level of intensity. The children’s encounters and observations spur the children’s coming of age journies. As this award-winning book is officially endorsed by the Hurston family, it’s definitely worth a read if you’re a fan of her work. Similar to Hurston’s books, we see cruelty especially in the name of love. I didn’t expect that in a middle-grade level book but can see how the text would be a great way to introduce darker themes. I feel like about a third of the way in, we take the road into the woods and the kids come out forever changed. This was an interesting book to read as an adult and very curious to know what an actual middle-grader thinks. The authors went on to separately write sequels, which I’m intrigued to read to learn more about the inquisitive Zora.
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