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In this captivating, critically acclaimed novel, "a seamless union between teller and tale" (The Boston Globe), Bret Lott creates a matchless portrayal of a mother's devotion to the child who is both her burden and God's singular way of smiling on her. It is 1943 in the backwoods of Mississippi. In the land of honeysuckle and wild grapevine, Jewel Hilburn and her husband Leston -- whose love for his wife is the surest comfort she's ever known -- are truly blessed. They have five fine children who embrace the world as though it were a sumptuous table set for a feast; and when Brenda Kay is born, Jewel gives thanks for yet another healthy baby, last-born and most welcome. Jewel is the story of how quickly a life can change; how, like lightning, an unforeseen event can illuminate our lives and set us on a course without reason or compass. All too soon, Jewel knows that something is wrong with Brenda Kay; her every moment, every breath is taken up with caring for her daughter, with setting things straight. Leston's optimism is failing as fast as the Southern postwar economy. And the physicians Jewel calls "crack doctors" insist that no one can fix a brain born without the gift of common sense. Against a stunning tableau reminiscent of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, the uniquely talented Bret Lott traces the intricate changes among the members of the Hilburn family as Jewel deepens her quarrel with God, taking hold of the hardships that come her way. Jewel sees one hope for them; they must travel to a new life in the Promised Land of California.... We will wait a very long time before another writer matches the intensity and the beauty of this mother-daughter relationship. Jewel stands as an unforgettable masterwork, in which Bret Lott has created one of the finest and most indomitable heroines of contemporary American fiction.
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The year is 1943 and life is good for Jewel Hilburn, her husband, Leston, and their five children. Although there's a war on, the Mississippi economy is booming, providing plenty of business for the hardworking family. And even the news that eldest son James has enlisted is mitigated by the fact that Jewel, now pushing 40, is pregnant with one last child. Her joy is slightly clouded, however, when her childhood friend Cathedral arrives at the door with a troubling prophecy: "I say unto you that the baby you be carrying be yo' hardship, be yo' test in this world. This be my prophesying unto you, Miss Jewel."
When the child is finally born, it seems that Cathedral's prediction was empty: the baby appears normal in every way. As the months go by, however, Jewel becomes increasingly afraid that something is wrong with little Brenda Kay--she doesn't cry, she doesn't roll over, she's hardly ever awake. Eventually husband and wife take the baby to the doctor and are informed that she is a "Mongolian Idiot," not expected to live past the age of 2. Jewel angrily rebuffs the doctor's suggestion that they institutionalize Brenda Kay. Instead the Hilburns shoulder the burdens--and discover the unexpected joys--of living with a Down's syndrome child.
Bret Lott has written a novel that spans decades, follows the lives of several characters, and cuts back and forth between Mississippi and California. Given these challenges, a lesser writer might lose focus. Lott, however, has wisely chosen to keep his eye trained on Jewel--a narrator who is smart, perceptive, and above all, honest. He has also bucked the trend toward political correctness by allowing his characters to think, feel, and talk the way white Mississippians of that era would have. ("Mongolian Idiot," "nigger," "cracker," and "buck" are just a few of the epithets sprinkled throughout the text.) The language may be discomforting to some readers. Few will deny, however, that Bret Lott has crafted a clan that is all heart in this bittersweet paean to the enduring strength of familial love. --Margaret PriorFrom the Publisher:
Bret Lott has a gift for making the ordinary seem luminous. In Jewel, he applies his art to a broad canvas and produces what may stand as his masterpiece....Lott matches the honest strength of his characters with that of his prose. His Jewel is a force of nature, her story rising out of a perfect, seamless union of teller and tale.
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