Book Review Archives

As the Sycamore Grows

By Jennie Helderman
The Summers Bridgewater Press
$20, Paper


Reviewed by Julia Oliver

This amazing chronicle of a courageous woman’s escape from a life of poverty, squalor, and domestic violence should attract many, many readers. It should also be a contender for awards. The author, Jennie Helderman, is a former Vice President and Board member of Alabama’s Department of Human Resources. Currently living in Atlanta, she has been a crusader for victims of abuse in Alabama and Georgia.

Helderman conducted extensive interview sessions with the victim, Ginger McNeil. She also interviewed the ex-husband who was the purported perpetrator; explored the desolate rural area in North Alabama where the couple lived; talked with their neighbors, friends, and acquaintances; and traveled to Texas to get the perspectives of relatives.

When we are introduced to Ginger in the first chapter, she has become a confident, briefcase-carrying counselor for the domestic abuse shelter that took her in several years before. From time to time, the author takes a break from the vividly descriptive narrative about her subject’s former life to remind us that Ginger’s situation has changed dramatically and positively. That was a good choice: It is a relief to know, while reading the harrowing details in flashback, that Ginger McNeil has not been hacked to pieces and secretly buried on those remote premises.

During that marriage, money was in short supply, so Ginger became very resourceful. She made and sold fish hooks; worked as a waitress; helped clear the land and build their haphazard house; butchered and made tasty meals of wild hogs, snakes, and, on one occasion, an alligator. She home-schooled their two young sons and worried about her eldest child, who occasionally visited but lived with his father. Ginger had grown up in a fundamentalist religious sect that decrees the wife must obey the husband. When her first marriage ended in divorce, she was expelled from the church.

Here are samples of the taut, often chilling prose:

He narrowed his eyes, focusing on Ginger as if he were sighting a rifle. Five steps it took to cross the room, fast, heavy steps. When he reached Ginger, he swung his arm down and smacked her jaw with the full force of his open hand. A man-blow that rocked her jaw.

Ginger knows now that women leave and go back an average of eight times before leaving for good. Aug 2010

Julia Oliver’s novel Devotion (University of Georgia Press) received the John Esten Cooke Award for Fiction about the South.