Monday, April 22, 2013

JO JOE by Sally Wiener Grotta_Review

Jo Joe by Sally Wiener Grotta
5 stars

Set in Black Bear, Pennsylvania, a fictional milieu created by authors Sally Wiener Grotta and Daniel Grotta, “Jo Joe” is a multilayered tale of small-community life, bigotry, entrenched religion, and one individual’s need to break free to assert her individuality, in the face of community pressure to either conform or to disappear. Judith Ormand is a Parisian-born product of a black French Jew and a Pennsylvania mountains Moravian. Raised until adolescence in Paris, after the death of her Grand-pere and the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, Judith goes to Black Bear to live with her mother’s folks. Due to her dark skin and professed Judaism, much of the community shuns her, but he is inexplicably defended by Joe, a hulking product of childhood abuse and football star—until he suddenly shuns her as well, leaving her vulnerable to attack and assault.

In her thirties when her beloved Gramma dies, Judith returns to Black Bear for the first time in many years (with the exception of her mother’s funeral earlier), to discover that the home and acreage have been bequeathed to Joe, whom her Gramma always distrusted. Determined to find an answer, the why of this sudden recent change of heart, Judith begins to turn over metaphorical rocks to peer underneath at the secrets such stones hide.

Ms. Grotta effectively portrays the mind-sets of this small Poconos Mountain community, going far beyond the expected “small town-everybody knows everybody’s secrets and business” to delineate the layers of savage racism, indifference and fear of outsiders, cruelty and sadism, the hive-consciousness of mobs, and the ways in which such negatives grind at the individual, producing not joy and light but instead bitterness, resentment, and fear. If we are shaped by our environment, such shaping becomes clear throughout the residents, and former residents, of Black Bear.

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