[REVIEW] The Secret of Gumbo Grove, by Eleanora E Tate

A paperback copy of The Secret of Gumbo Grove lies on a table, surrounded by a crochet project, an open laptop, and a blue and white paper bookmark.

(Buy it from Bookshop here.)

Finally I have time to write another book review!

Eleven-year old Raisin Stackhouse loves Prince, her younger sisters, and history. She’s a responsible kid who does odd jobs for neighbors in her South Carolina tourist town, so when Effie Pfluggins, the church secretary, calls her over to help clean graves in the town’s old cemetery she agrees. The cemetery holds the remains of the town’s Black residents going all the way back to slavery, and some of the stories Miz Effie has to tell get her and Raisin a little more attention than they bargained for.

Despite its cemetery scenes, this book is not a ghost story. Instead, it’s about how important oral history is to American communities, and how easily the truth can be twisted if people forget their real history. It’s also about a close-knit Black community in a small coastal town, and how rejuvenating it is for them to rediscover their history–the good AND the bad.

This book was written in the ’80s but it still has a lot to say about listening to the stories elders share with us and remembering history now. I first read this as a kid and it got me so interested in family history that I walked around with a pen and notebook annoying everyone for an entire summer.

But…this book was written in the ’80s. It’s a bit dated. Hilarious references to jheri curls and jelly shoes are on every other page. Those are fun but mores have changed and it shows. Raisin and her friends are a lot more free-range than any kid is now. One of Raisin’s middle-school friends has a very inappropriate crush on an older kid–things like that were talked about very different 40 years ago than they are now, and that subplot is extremely uncomfortable to read in 2021.

YA and middle grade were very different genres back in the day, and one thing I like about this is how unprocessed it is. The plot’s a little sloppy, there are all kinds of side stories, the narrative is sometimes a little too authentic, and Raisin-as-narrator is smart, but not precocious and far from perfect. The book is a little raggedy around the edges and probably wouldn’t be published now. It’s not slick and commercial enough. Shame, since it’s also got a great story, realistic characters, and a joyous ending.

I love this book, for both its joys and imperfections. 5 stars and a genealogy chart to The Secret of Gumbo Grove.

(Fellow readers, beautiful people, and assorted trolls–happy Winter Holiday Week! You may have already celebrated, you may have a holiday coming up, or you may not celebrate at all. Whatever you do, I hope you find yourself, at some point, curled up with a good book and surrounded by love.

If you want to see a list of other YA novels I love despite myself, click here. Also, this is the part where for legal reasons I must remind you that this blog has affliate relationships with sites like Bookshop and if you click and purchase anything from a link on this site, a commission is earned–and then I go buy more books. Merry Christmas, y’all. Peace!)


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