The Ageism/Sexism Combo
There’s undeniably a cultural stigma of ageism which compounds on the hinderance of women’s stories being told with as much honesty and dignity as their male counterparts. In many (most?) parts of the western world, there’s a cultural break where once a woman is no longer considered a sexually viable option, their importance is somehow diminished. It’s absurd, if not only because these are people who have so many experiences and lessons to offer the younger generations.
The Pecan Man by Cassie Dandridge Selleck is not about this ageism/sexism combo, but it is certainly very aware of it. Her characters are aware of it. So while the story is so much larger than that singular idea, it is made all the more compelling because our two main characters are women who would be considered older and, therefore; invisible.
Ora Lee Beckworth is a widow living in the south post-Civil Rights era when blacks have lawfully been given equal rights but racism still runs rampant (which is painfully applicable to our contemporary era). She, to the chagrin of her fellow white neighbors, hires Eldres Mims (whom the children have dubbed the Pee-can Man) to tend to her lawn and garden. About this same time, a young white boy is murdered and speculation abounds as to who is responsible for this crime. Narratively, we come into the story as Ora Lee, now looking at her final days, records what she saw and what she knew during these controversial times.
After the death of her husband, Ora Lee finds her housekeeper, Blanche Lowery (a black woman), to be her most constant and loyal companion. As the months and years go on, Ora Lee develops a growing relationship with Blanche’s kids and increasingly welcomes them into her home. It’s a beautiful look at how we create our own families and how love transcends race and color. That’s not to say their relationship is always easy - the cultural norms that continue to place barriers between them also continuously cause conflict. The difference in their upbringings results in different ideas on how to handle almost every situation. But their relationship is a gorgeous example of how strong the bonds can be between women who hold mutual respect and affection for one another. It’s truly one of the most lovely relationships I have read this year.
But the real crux of this story is how sometimes despite our very best efforts to do what is right, we sometimes can’t help but flounder. The best thing that can be said for Ora Lee is that she is genuinely well-meaning. In everything she does, she is doing what she believes to be the right thing to do. And at times, it is so wonderful. And at others, it is painful to see where she missteps and makes the situation worse. But in our present times (and this book continues to prove to us how little we have progressed in the last 50 years) of trying to navigate how to best be an ally to the groups and people who need help gaining and maintaining their equal rights, we are all going to flounder. We are all going to, at times, be well-meaning people who stumble. Though I think Ora Lee would agree its always best to keep trying.
Actually, I have to retract what I just said. The best thing that can be said for Ora Less is that she listens when someone tells her she is wrong. When her well-intentioned actions have less-than-desirable consequences, she examines where she misunderstood the situation. Throughout the book she continues to better understand her own entitlement and her own biases and continues to grow. She continues to try to do what is right. It’s a painful development to witness because there are parts of her prejudices that exist in each of us, but that is all the more reason as to why her character rings as so honest, so raw, so relatable. Goodness, I think I just wish Ora Lee was my grandmother.
This story is equal parts beautiful and heart-breaking, with a good amount of suspense mixed in for good measure. I recommend it to literally everyone as I don’t think there is a single person who can’t learn something about themselves and their neighbors from reading this book.
by Cassie Dandridge Selleck