Monday, May 8, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Kudzu Queen by Mimi Herman

The Kudzu Queen by Mimi Herman is a touching coming-of-age story set in 1941 in small-town North Carolina. The heroine, Mattie Watson, is fifteen years old and lives in farm country with her down-to-earth, generous parents, her ambitious, clever but naive older brother Daniel, and her earnest younger brother Joey. She has a best friend, Lynnette, whose family is about as dysfunctional as can be, with an abusive alcoholic father and sickly mother. Lynette essentially takes over the care of her two young sisters. Mattie treats the whole situation with compassion, discretion, and increasing maturity.

Mattie wants more from life but isn’t sure what that “more” is. Until James T. Cullowee rides into town preaching the many advantages of a new crop called kudzu.

If you’ve ever driven through the countryside of the American Southeast, you’ve seen kudzu. It’s an invasive plant that grows quickly and covers everything. It’s very difficult to eradicate and chokes the native flora as it takes over. But in the early 1940s, it was seen as a wonder plant, useful for everything from fodder to medicine to food to a substitute for tobacco. In fact, the Civilian Conservation Corps was paying farmers to cultivate it. 

Mr. Cullowee, the self-proclaimed Kudzu King, is traveling about North Carolina encouraging the locals to turn their acres over to kudzu. He claims this is his mission – that he is doing this from the goodness of his heart because he believes in the benefits of this new cash crop. He’s handsome, charming, and slick. Mattie is smitten.

As part of his scheme, he proposes a Kudzu Festival with the crowning of a Kudzu Queen. The whole town is caught up in the excitement. He holds camps to teach the older boys how to plant the weed and he enlists the mayor’s wife to teach a group of high school girls beauty pageant comportment. Mattie is determined to win the crown and Cullowee’s approval. But as she learns more about his methods and the kind of man he is, she plots to expose him.

Mattie’s innocence, intelligence, and honesty give this novel its heart. Readers will cheer her on. 

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