Tut is mentally ill. At least her family thinks so. In the small town of Belle Place everybody knows about her four fatherless children. The local pastor has refused to baptize her offspring unless she reveals their paternity. But Tut isn’t talking.
Tut and her large brood live with her mother Maymay, an exacting, prayerful woman who feels overcome with the shame of her loose daughter. “No God-fearing, decent woman wants to have a bad reputation in a small, one-traffic-light town like Belle Place, Louisiana,” she often laments to Tut’s eldest child, Celeste.
Celeste is 12 but old enough to feel the weight of her mother’s infamy. She avoids speaking or interacting with her mother for fear of catching her wild ways.
“I don’t look at Mama, not even once, because I don’t want to get in trouble with Maymay by starting her up again…She is looking at my hair and smiling, but I am riding my bike and ignoring her like I would a stray, playful dog. I pretend that she isn’t there, and I stay focused. It’s best for all of us.”
Celestial Blue Skies is a story told through dialogue and internal monologue, a style that is intimate and immediate and largely works, only falling down when the characters try to sneak in chunks of exposition. Maggie Collins does a sterling job with the musical vernacular of the Deep South, it’s like eavesdropping on another world. Just hearing the characters speak helps you settle into the rhythm of Southern life and feels almost anthropological in its revelation of Louisiana’s small town ways.
The narration is passed from character to character, like a tale being spun around a fire. The story meanders, not overly concerned with plot, but it circles back time and again to Tut’s struggles. Everybody in Belle Place is certain she has mental health problems, why else would she be so free with her body? Yet in the chapters where she speaks – aside from her fears that Diana Ross is stealing her song ideas – her thoughts are lucid and rational. Is it possible that Tut simply enjoys sex?
“Black look at me from my muddy flip-flop feet to my hair. His eyes make their way up my body nice and slow, like he is ironing my body with eyes. He look at me as if he is searching for something beyond the raggedy cotton dress that I wear. I like his slow and not hurrying way.”
Maybe a sexually adventurous woman is too much for her small town neighbours. Or maybe there is another reason for her sexual agency.
We also delve into the mind of Maymay, the anchor of the family. A woman who takes great pride in her mixed racial heritage and the fact she owns the land her family lives on. But her prideful ways rub her daughter-in-law, Bumblebee, up the wrong way. In a town stratified along colour lines, Bumblebee bears the weight of Maymay’s colour prejudice.
“She don’t say it to my face, but she told her passé blanc family from St. Martinville that I am a hoodoo queen. She don’t understand how a heavy-set black woman like me can marry a fine and handsome passé blanc man like Red.”
I found Celeste the most compelling character. We watch her grow from a young girl to a sexually awakened teenager. She’s such a strong personality that the focus of the novel feels split between her journey and Tut’s. When the story circles back to Tut at the end, Celeste’s story is left incomplete.
Mid-way through the novel the action moves from Belle Place to neighbouring Sunset. We leave behind most of the characters we’ve come to know and the pace that once felt languorous now feels slow. New subplots are introduced that never really find a destination. We do return to Belle Place and the story picks up again with some gripping revelations. The stunning resolution goes a long way to rebalancing the weak spots.
Maggie Collins was born and raised in Loreauville, Louisiana. She majored in English and earned a Master’s degree from the University of New Orleans. In 2009 she was a finalist for the worldwide William Faulkner William Wisdom writing contest. She is a Center for Black Literature fellow and an Educational Diagnostician. Celestial Blue Skies was shortlisted for the Ernest Gaines award in 2014.