Cover image for Knee-deep in wonder : a novel
Knee-deep in wonder : a novel
Reynolds, April.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Metropolitan Books, [2003]

Physical Description:
301 pages ; 25 cm
Geographic Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



A dazzling first novel about four generations of fear and longing in the deep South
Who're your people, girl?" It's the song of the South, the big question, persistent and unforgiving. Helene Strickland, daughter of Lafayette County, Arkansas, and lately of the Northeast, doesn't have an answer. Instead, she has memories riddled with half-truths, stories heard in fits and starts, a family history from a family that doesn't know its own past.

In the steamy August of 1976, Helene returns home for her aunt's funeral determined to learn the truth, but her probing yields more questions than answers: Why did her grandmother, Liberty, a cotton picker turned saloon owner, have no name until she was fourteen? Why does Queen Ester, Helene's mother, dress like a child, talk to no one, and refuse to see her own daughter? And who was Chess, a man with a terror of water, a man like a honey trap who drew the women and then destroyed them?

In a mesmerizing narrative, April Reynolds seamlessly weaves past and present, intricate flashbacks and interlaced stories to produce an epic novel of one family maimed by the deepest wounds of history. Rich with legend, poetry, and historic events, Knee Deep in Wonder captures the complex humanity of black Southern life.

Author Notes

April Reynolds teaches philosophy and creative writing at New York University and lives in New York City. Knee Deep in Wonder, her first novel, received a Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation Award for unpublished work.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In August of 1987, Helene Strickland travels from Washington, D.C., to a small, rural, black town in Lafayette County, Arkansas, for her Aunt Annie B's funeral and to reunite with her mother, who didn't raise her. The novel takes place in a single day but spans four generations in flashbacks in which Helene's mother, grandmother, father, Uncle Ed, and Aunt Annie B slowly unfold family secrets. Helene is the last remnant of the unholy trinity of her mother, Queen Ester; her grandmother, Liberty; and her father, Chess. Deserted by her husband, Liberty lives independently with her daughter, Queen Ester--who is rendered eternally childlike by her mother's doting. When wayward Chess arrives, haunted by his own murky past, the three develop an unhealthy dependency that eventually compels Liberty to send Helene away to be raised by distant relatives. Reynolds' first novel is a haunting account of a mother's obsessive love and a daughter's demented love. --Vanessa Bush Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

"Children grow crooked when they live in a house that's unnatural," Queen Ester tells her grown, estranged daughter, Helene Strickland. Three generations of crooked children grow into complex women in Reynolds's debut novel, a winding journey through black Southern culture and history as viewed through the warped lens of one family's struggles. Queen Ester's mother, Liberty, is abandoned as a girl and grows up picking cotton on tenant farms. In 1930, she starts a cafe in Lafayette County, Ark., and takes in a charming drifter, neglecting her daughter, Queen Ester, who becomes strange and reclusive. Queen Ester, in turn, is forced to give up her own daughter, Helene, born out of wedlock. In 1976, Helene, who now works at a nursing home in Washington, D.C., comes back to Lafayette County for a funeral and to seek answers about her past. But the crafty, childlike Queen Ester instead feeds her lies and half-truths, circling around the family's story, but never quite reaching its sordid center. The large cast of characters navigate myth and history, including the indignities of the sharecropper system and a disastrous 1927 flood in Mississippi. Through flashbacks and hinted connections, the family's secrets are gradually revealed. Though the tangled, self-consciously Faulknerian narration occasionally leaves the reader as lost as Helene, and last-minute attempts to tie together loose ends feel hasty and cosmetic, Reynolds's talent for fluent, colloquial dialogue provides relief. It is the characters themselves who hold the readers' attention in the end, as they simultaneously cling to and wound one another. Author tour. (Sept. 2) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Helene Strickland's family doesn't seem to have a past, so finally she starts asking questions. This debut won a Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation Award for unpublished work, so you can let your expectations soar. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



From Knee Deep in Wonder : Sweets was a drifter, twenty years old with no luggage or steady job. By 1914, he had traveled from Tennessee to as far as Oklahoma and Arizona, claiming to have taught the great Bill Pickett everything he knew. Any grandmother could see he was no good, but who could tell that to a girl of seventeen with no people of her own? She heard him first, whistling lightly in the full-grown corn--the sound pricked her ear and she stood up, pushing apart the tall stalks; then she saw him, strolling toward her, his jacket tucked beneath his arm, the corn seeming to move out of his way. He came closer and she dropped the basket she carried, swaying at his nearness. When he stood only a pace away, he sang her hello. Her laughter made him bolder and he took her hand, rubbing her thumb. "Who is you?" She thought and thought, unsure of what to say, waiting for him to see the blank space of her dilemma and fill it with the name of an old lover, perhaps. "Girl, you hear me? What's your name?" She looked past his shoulder. "Lord, Lord, Lord," she panted. She waited for an answer that would not break her heart or her back. Then she had it. Like a ripe peach, ready to drop, the name fell into her lap, beautiful, free of soft spots. The sound of her name almost made her knees buckle. "Liberty, my name is Liberty." Excerpted from Knee-Deep in Wonder: A Novel by April Reynolds All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.