Child Bride: A Novel

Written by Jennifer Smith Turner
Review by B. J. Sedlock

Turner, a poet, has written a lovely coming-of-age novel centered on Nell Jones, 16, the youngest child of twelve in an impoverished African American farming family in mid-1950s Louisiana. She witnesses her father being ordered out of the local store by the white owner, when race relations are agitated just after the murder of Emmett Till. Nell’s teacher reluctantly tells her about the night her own father was lynched. But warm family relationships and her love of reading and school sustain Nell.

Henry Bight, about ten years older, courts Nell, with her parents’ encouragement. She is both excited and scared about the prospect of leaving home for Boston, and in the end agrees to marry him. She is astonished at the differences up north, like being able to use the same public restroom as whites, and hopes to continue her studies and maybe become a teacher. But Henry suppresses Nell’s spirit, expecting her to stay home and have babies, not allowing her to go anywhere without him. She finally persuades him to let her attend church. While helping in the kitchen, she meets Charles, a college-educated church member, and they form an instant attraction. Disaster strikes when she realizes she is pregnant: Henry will know this fourth child is not his.

Turner excels at description: “Our house had been built by hand; the wood shingles were uneven, the doors never closed completely, and the window frames were crooked. Ninety-degree angles didn’t find a home in this house.” Those passages and Nell’s emotional journey from child to woman, drawing on support from her community and learning to stand up for herself, are powerful. I had trouble putting the book down. The potent characterizations and vivid descriptions make this story stand out; I strongly recommend it.