My Review of Queenie’s Place
I was immediately drawn into Toni Morgan’s novel, Queenie’s Place, by its story line of a Marine Corps officer’s wife who is a fighter for causes during the early 1970s. When the book opens, we are introduced to Doreen through the eyes of her son Billy as he waits for her at a peace march against the Vietnam War, “ . . . with her Southern California suntan and a personal dress style somewhere between Dallas Cowboy cheerleader and Chelsea Street modern.”
It is no surprise, then, when Doreen’s husband is transferred from California to North Carolina, that Doreen is in for some culture shock. The descriptions of culture shock, starting with a “Welcome to Klan Country” billboard are vividly and realistically drawn. I particularly liked how the stifling heat and humidity in that area of North Carolina were used to underscore the oppressive culture of bigotry Doreen finds herself fighting against when a faction of townspeople try to close down Queenie’s Place, a roadhouse for black Marines.
Doreen becomes involved in Queenie’s cause through chance and a simple act of kindness. Doreen’s car gets a flat tire in front of Queenie’s Place, and she is made to feel welcome. At this point in the story, the first-person narration alternates between Doreen and Queenie.
Hearing Queenie’s story in her own voice takes her from being a “cause” to a living, breathing human being. In fact, the sections where Queenie speaks were my favorite. In addition to her compelling life history, she is warm, genuine, and carries herself with a certain grace. I could see why Doreen was so drawn to her.
I also appreciated that as the story unfolds, Doreen’s youthful idealism is portrayed in all of its complexity and unintended consequences, including its impact on her family and those she has committed herself to helping.
Queenie’s Place is a clear reminder that Jim Crow was not so very long ago, and we all must be vigilant to keep him where he belongs: as a painful footnote in history. I look forward to reading more of Toni Morgan’s engaging and thought-provoking fiction.
The Inspiration for Queenie’s Place
When I contacted Toni Morgan for a photograph to accompany my review, she included a bonus: her inspiration for writing the book!
Like Doreen, I was pretty naïve about life in the south. My first experience was in 1961 in Florida, where I saw white and colored restrooms and drinking fountains for the first time. I was appalled. Every night when I left work, I rode a bus with a sign that directed ‘coloreds’ to the rear. I so wanted to go to the back myself, but didn’t have Rosa Parks’ courage. Or Doreen’s.
My next experience was in 1973 in North Carolina. Like Tom, in Queenie’s Place, my husband had just returned from 13 months in Vietnam—he was still have feral. Unlike after WWII, there was no decompression before men came home. He came out of the jungle one day, flew in a helicopter to an airbase. He was home 36 hours after he left the jungle! Unlike Doreen and Tom, when we drove from the west to the east coast, we had four kids and two dogs with us. Let’s just say it was an experience.
When we arrived in North Carolina, outside Goldsboro, we came to a huge advertising sign—Welcome to Klan Country. Just like Doreen, I was shocked. Ten years before, I’d seen hints of it, but never so blatant. We’d had civil rights legislation, for heaven’s sake. How could people feel justified to have such thoughts? Oh yeah, North Carolina was pretty much one cultural shock after another. We were there for two years.
When we came back from living in Japan for just shy of four years, my husband was again assigned to a base in North Carolina. Camp Lejeune rather than Cherry Point. One day my phone rang. It was my neighbor. She said her car had broken down, her husband, an anesthesiologist, was in the operating room, so would I come and pick her up. She gave me directions, then whispered, “And would you hurry. This place is kind of strange.” Of course I hurried to pick her up. The place was a few miles out of town. It didn’t really look that strange from the outside. Marigolds along the front. A swing hanging from a tree branch. It was a brothel.
We giggled all the way home, laughing about what we’d tell our husbands that night. But I thought about those women for many years, wondering what their lives had been like, what had brought them to that place. And I always regretted that I hadn’t had the nerve to make a statement on the bus when I was younger. So I created a character in Doreen who experienced some of the things I had over the years, but had the courage to do something about it. I also changed Queenie’s Place to a roadhouse rather than a brothel, but it is still a homage to those women. Also, I should say, to military spouses all over and the Queenie’s, whether black, white, yellow or red, are trying to find their rightful place in the world.