Some Personal Papers by JoAllen Bradham left me with completely mixed feelings and I can’t properly express my concerns without giving away spoilers. The story is about a social worker who, after working her way up to the director of Children’s Services in her community begins to ease the suffering and neglect that some of her children experience in an alarming manner. The denouement was obvious, given the tone of the beginning, so the conclusion offered no genuine surprises.
But the voice and craft of this book are solid. I can see why it won the Townsend Prize for Fiction. The narrator’s story-telling rolls smoothly and her character is revealed as much through her memories and experiences as through her actions.
These actions, however, are the reason I found the story distasteful to the point of being offended by it. I thought others would feel this way but apparently I am alone. I can think of several groups of people that could easily take issue with this novel. Or perhaps I am becoming overly sensitive in my old age, unable to appreciate a dark tale. When I compare this story, however, with that of Perfume, another book whose protagonist is far from empathetic and hardly sympathetic, I can’t help but feel cheated by this novel.
And yet . . . I would consider reading another novel by the author because I honestly can’t find any flaws in the story. I just didn’t like the story itself.
After the cover image, there are spoilers. Read on at your own risk!
The protagonist, Eugenia Diane Putnam–“Miss Genie” to the children with whom she works–begins to incidentally euthanize some of her “clients.”
Although Miss Genie is herself an African-American, all of her victims are African-American (or biracial) males. They are also all handicapped in some way. One child is hydrocephalic, another is blind, another drug addicted, etc. Her rationale for choosing these children is that she is setting them free.
When she happens upon a pair of girls, however, she does not see a need to “free” them but, instead, adopts them. They are, by her assumption, of mixed heritage and they both show an ability to learn, with the older of the two girls also expressing a facility for art. These are the reasons for her choosing to adopt the girls, I suppose.
So what is the message here?
If you’re a boy you should be considered for death?
Or is it just that those boys are not physically and/or mentally perfect?
The intelligence and even physical attractiveness of these two girls is emphasized and obviously plays a role in why Miss Genie doesn’t choose to murder them. I’m surprised that nobody was offended by this, that no mother of a child with cerebral palsy didn’t cry out against the implied message or that some African-American reader didn’t protest how dispensable these children were to a clearly racially self-loathing protagonist. Let's assume that a social worker would not read themselves into the narrator's character, I'm still surprised that a Christian hasn't screamed in outrage about how once again a born again Christian is being portrayed by the "liberal media" as a crackpot.
There is so much to dislike about the story and it is perhaps the disturbing quality of the novel that gives it some strength but I was left feeling so angry and offended that I didn’t want to even like it on a technical level. I wanted to loathe it on every level. And had it had even half the poetry of Perfume, I’d probably have grudgingly given it a third star. As it is, I am not even sure I want to give it two stars. It left me with such a foul taste in my mouth. Because unlike Suskind's novel, I never felt compelled by Miss Eugenie's story because I knew from page one how it was going to end even if I didn't know the specific manner in which it would get there. And, because she lacked the perversely intriguing qualities of Suskind's far more enigmatic serial killer, I don't honestly know why I bothered to read this book to the end knowing so well what I already did.