Embracing the Extraordinary
Sketching out the premise of Perfect Peace’s plot gives nothing away: when the seventh child of Emma Jean and Gus Peace is born a boy, like the preceding six, Emma Jean refuses to give up her dream of having a daughter to raise. She tells her midwife, “This is my daughter […] I know what it is, but it’s gon’ be a girl. From now on.” And so Perfect Peace is born in May 1940’s Swamp Creek, Arkansas.
I was initially intrigued by Perfect Peace because I wanted to see how Daniel Black would explore the impact on Perfect of her/his forced “transition” from the girl they were raised as to the boy they were biologically born. (See below for a note about how challenging the use of pronouns is in discussing this book.) The gender norms that define life in Swamp Creek make this transition devastating: in a moment of self-understanding, Paul realizes, “No one had composed any narrative for him as a boy, and he decided that, if he was going to survive, he’d have to create his own story, complete with a fairy-tale ending even he couldn’t imagine. So that day in the field of clovers, he began to mentally construct a self-conceived, self-affirming tale that would take him a lifetime to complete.”
As readers follow Perfect/Paul through childhood, we see they aren’t the only child stunted and even harmed by the gender rules that shape their world, a powerful reminder that children today still face similar challenges.
Perfect Peace introduces readers to a tight-knit, small community that thinks it knows what it knows about gender identity and is forced to reconsider. I see a corollary in the rapid and passionate response to reports of the Department of Health and Human Services’s effort to establish a legal definition of sex under Title IX that depends on ignoring the biological and lived realities that transgender and intersex folks report and science confirms. Sex is complicated. With an inclusive definition that incorporates “all variations of sex development […] under the superordinate term DSDs [Disorders of sex development],” 1 in 100 births do not fit neatly into the male-female binary. Gender identity is similarly richly complex, and we know that studies demonstrate “a robust international consensus that gender transition […] improves the overall well-being of transgender individuals.” We know these truths because intersex and transgender folks have shared their lived realities with us.
Each time I had to type a pronoun, my fingers hesitated: should I use the one that Perfect identified with, knowing that this one endangered Perfect? Should I use the one Paul strove to put on, honoring that struggle?
Readers of Perfect Peace (and this post, for that matter) need to remember that the novel explores a tragedy thrust upon Perfect, NOT an internal understanding of their identity that they come to know. For transgender folks, the ability to affirm their gender identity correlates strongly with their mental well-being.
For Perfect/Paul, the experience is radically different. Emma Jean takes Perfect to the woods, tells her the truth, and cuts her hair. Perfect seems to lose her identity and her memory with her hair: “Years later, she would try to recall exactly how the transition had occurred, only to find a blank space in her memory where details should have been.” Paul, on the other hand, experiences the transition as his world “shifting without his consent.” Looking at his body that never seems to grow to match the physicality of his brothers’, he wonders if his “girlhood days” stunted his growth. Could acting more like a man make a difference, he asks himself.
An important linguistic note to highlight is that the narrative of Perfect Peace makes pronoun use difficult: in the years after he learns the truth, Perfect/Paul has periodic moments when he thinks of himself as she/her, while various characters in the story violently enforce use of he/him pronouns. As I was writing this post, each time I had to type a pronoun, my fingers hesitated: should I use the one that Perfect identified with, knowing that this one endangered Perfect? Should I use the one Paul strove to put on, honoring that struggle? This thought exercise ultimately can remind us of the ways that our language’s limiting pronouns can exacerbate an already (at times) painful experience, as well as the ways that pronouns can be used against people. Here I’ve used “her” or “him” at moments that call for that specificity and “they” the rest of the time.
As the chapters unfolded, I found myself equally drawn to Emma Jean, sharing the narrative’s desire to understand WHY she chose to present and raise Perfect as a girl. How could she fail to see the ramifications of this action? How did she think she would get away with it? She tries to justify it with the assertion that “Every mother wants a girl. It’s a woman’s dream.” But it’s more than wanting a daughter. It’s needing to give herself the mother she never had by mothering a daughter as she was never mothered.
In a world that disdains the not-ordinary, those marked by difference can be driven to destruction in their efforts to find their place.
Experiencing Emma Jean’s relationship with her mother vicariously through her memories, the reader sees the devastating impact of maternal abuse on a child. On Perfect’s 8th birthday, this need surfaces when Emma Jean creates the party for Perfect that she had envisioned for herself forty years earlier and been denied by her mother. Emma Jean surveys the festivities and tells herself that “What mattered most was that Perfect had been given the party, which Emma Jean had been denied, and now, Emma Jean chuckled, Mae Helen could really go to hell.” Looking back over her life, she dares to hope she might get a chance to live again, in which case “She’d ask God not to make her so dark this time that her mother would beat her for it, but to give her hair like her sisters’ and soft, caramel skin like Paul’s.”
In a poignant scene, Paul and his best friend Eva Mae seek a four-leafed clover “’Cause Momma said whoever finds a four-leaf clover is gonna find somebody to love them forever.” Their search enacts the tragedy of Paul’s life on the field: “Like a demolition team, the two moved upon their hands and knees, destroying the ordinary in search of the extraordinary. They wanted difference, originality, uniqueness, and they were determined to find it.” In a world that disdains the not-ordinary, those marked by difference can be driven to destruction in their efforts to find their place. Throughout the novel, the characters chase the “hope for a perfect peace,” inviting readers to witness the truth-telling introspection that is the most powerful voice of change.
Paul mourns the loss of his girlhood because the “little world” that Perfect shared with Emma Jean could not survive the rupture inflicted when she had to turn into a boy. Where Emma Jean views this as him “always having some residue of his former life,” though, Paul discovers that he “simply had to be who he was.” Forever scarred by her mother’s mistreatment, Emma Jean cannot embrace the extraordinary in her seventh child. Daniel Black strives to offer a hopeful ending for Paul. The impact of Emma Jean’s upbringing on her mothering of her own children means that their intertwined girlhoods serve as a cautionary tale that “sometimes you have to grow up before you appreciate how you grew up.”