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Orphea Proud    by Sharon Dennis Wyeth order for
Orphea Proud
by Sharon Dennis Wyeth
Order:  USA  Can
Delacorte, 2004 (2004)
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

In a nightclub in New York, seventeen-year old African-American Orphea Proud delivers a stage-presentation monologue, written as a combination of prose and poetry to a live audience as well as to readers. She says, 'You know the myth about the guy named Orpheus? ... He was a great poet and singer. The love of his life gets bitten ... Orpheus goes after her, straight to the underworld ... he can't turn around, Orpheus takes a peek. The love of his life disappears, lost to him forever.'

Orphea grows up in Pennsylvania, Her father's death is soon followed by the loss of her beloved mother Nadine, a gifted singer. At seven years of age, Orphea is placed under the guardianship of her rigid, half-brother Rupert and his wife Ruby. From the age of ten, Orphea and her white classmate Lissa become inseparable. Orphea describes Lissa, 'She was my best friend in the world. She wrapped my soul in golden ribbons.' Lissa is a talented painter. 'I want to be like Georgia O'Keefe,' she said, 'Lascivious.' Of Lissa, Orphea writes one of her first poems, 'I have a friend / Who likes to paint / Works of nature / Very quaint / A leaf she spied upon the ground / Became a fern-like lacy gown / If I were naked, my request / Would be that leaf upon my breast / Tattooed, like an elf I'd dance / Until discovered just by chance.' At age sixteen, they discover they are in love. Finding them in bed together, Rupert beats Orphea. As Lissa drives home in a snowstorm, there's a fatal car crash. Tasting a smoothie drink that she and Lissa once made together, Orphea says 'I took a taste and where there should have been sweetness on my tongue, there was just the taste of sad.'

This is the story of a young woman's performance of writings of her joy, pain, and sorrow, and subsequently finding solace in the Virginia mountains. She is dropped off there by bigoted Rupert, who can no longer abide her behavior. Great Aunts Minerva and Cleo happily own a family-rooted rundown general store, seeing customers mostly during the warm seasons. Upon arrival at her new home, Orphea describes Proud Road as 'another country. You'd probably think it's the middle of nowhere or even the end of the world. I think of it as the land of softness in honor of the quilts and pillows my two aunts gave me to take up to a loft, where I slept for a week.' From her aunts, she learns more about her mother and father, prejudice and tolerance, family and love. Entering Orphea's life are neighbors and relatives, Lola Grimes and a fourteen-year-old cousin, Raynor Grimes - a talented artist, who was injured by a horse and was in a coma for some time. Raynor paints an outstanding mural of Lissa on a root cellar wall, from a photo shown to him by Orphea. Orphea shares her secret love with her aunts, Raynor, and Lola. The aunts accept her unconditionally, telling her, 'you're family, honey child'.

The time arrives for the 'Homecoming' in Virginia, as relatives gather from near and far. Unexpectedly, Rupert attends the reunion and causes a scene for Orphea, who is defended by cousin Raynor. Orphea and Raynor travel the following summer to Queens, NY, with Lola's and the aunts' blessings to perform at her friends' 'warehouse-turned-nightclub'. Orphea recites while Raynor Grimes paints a mural behind her, that is only seen by the audience. The distinctive format is made special and notable by Orphea's passionate, poetic voice. Orphea speaks lyrically of Lissa, family, and the love and pain her life has held. My eyes grew misty reading this book, and at times I smiled. But mostly my heart went out to Orphea in her sorrow, and joy. Sharon Dennis Wyeth's Orphea Proud is a wonderful story written with grace, depth, and sensitivity.

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