“WHAT THE GROWN MEN TO DO around these parts if little girls gone be the ones saving folks?” So ask grown men like Mr. Slayton the first time the “mighty deserving” fourth grader Zora acts as a “deputy” to the local Marshal, Joe Clarke, in the mysterious case of Old Lady Bronson falling at the Blue Sink swimming hole. As narrated by best friend Carrie, Zora feels compelled to answer the question of whether Old Lady Bronson was pushed or fell. Which will resolve, in turn, the issue of whether Mr. Pendir, who lives by the Blue Sink, is or is not a half-man half-gator. Which will finally solve the central mystery lurking in the margins of the book: is the story-telling Zora crazy, or a liar?
The last question is the most fun, and the answer is of course, neither: Zora’s a writer. Thankfully, Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon are writers too, and gifted, generous ones at that; their re-imagined, fourth-grade incarnation of the Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston never seems to drag under the weight of biographical significance or historical fiction. The real, adult Hurston, of course, was an anthropologist, essayist, and playwright, as well as the author of at least one certified literary classic (Their Eyes Were Watching God). But Bond and Simon’s Zora is, beyond all else, a great character, whether or not you know much about the real woman who inspired her. The Zora of Zora and Me would be appealing even if the only story she ever created was this one — the one she stars in herself. But, as with the fictional Jo March in Little Women or the autobiographical Eudora Welty in One Writer’s Beginning, we’re allowed to see where the writerly eye comes from, the storyteller in the story. It’s the heart of the book, and yet another mystery, that of authorial origins: where do writers come from? Even though it’s fictionalized, witnessing the birth of Zora the storyteller feels like a privilege.
Just like Joe Clarke’s store, Zora’s entire town is full of “tall tales and greasy talk. The aisles might have been lined with household goods, but the air was full of the kinds of ideas and words respectable ladies wouldn’t dare let in their houses.” And the young Zora, who takes to it like any young writer would, “sucked all that adult life right up… the men’s stories always felt like the next installment of a good serial.” In the fertile narrative environment of Eatonville, hearing stories teaches Zora to tell them to Carrie, and Carrie to tell them to us.
It’s no small wonder, then, that Zora and Me begins with eavesdropping, and as we enter the book along with our main characters, pretending to play in the shade, we’re actually “listening to the menfolk’s stories and salty comments and filing them away to talk about later on.” This folk story is expressly about the making of folk stories. If Zora’s goal is “saving folks,” the authors’ goal is more aligned with saving “folk” (an undertaking that Hurston, who traveled the South in the 1930s recording African American folklore and oral history for her 1935 book Mules and Men, would applaud). Bond and Simon’s story, happily, accomplishes both.
So we are led to understand that the personality of a fledgling detective is not so different from that of a future writer or a strong daughter. Curiosity leads young Zora pretty much everywhere. It causes her to listen, bright-eyed, when a body is found on the tracks. It also, in one of the more critical passages of the book, causes the young Zora’s preacher father to accuse her of acting “white” by “wanting to talk about death, right here at the dinner table!”
But Zora perseveres, and the following refrain becomes familiar: “I know who I am. I’m Zora.” Local mean girl Stella Brazzle may not see it quite that way (“You the lyingest girl in town! Even when you tell the truth, it comes out a lie!”) but we readers know the truth of this particular folk fiction. The greatest curiosity of Zora and Me is the curious nature of the girl surrounded by story — the girl who surrounds herself with story. Only, interestingly enough, it’s not really a mystery, not to the girl herself.
She’s Zora. She knows who she is. She’s the heart of her own story, and what a whopper it is. I gave this book to my own fourth grader, who devoured it, but then I took it back and kept it in my own bookcase. Greasy talk, salty comments, tall tales: I sucked it up as much as young Zora did. And, I predict, so will you; you’ll want it all.