Scarlet Carnation

Written by Laila Ibrahim
Review by Paula Martinac

Scarlet Carnation is the fourth in Ibrahim’s series of historical novels that started with Yellow Crocus. This volume jumps to 1915 in the San Francisco Bay area and follows the granddaughters of the original characters, Lisbeth and Mattie, as social issues of the day manifest in their lives.

May, a young white woman not long out of high school, lives with her mother and grandmother Lisbeth, but aspires to marry her beau and settle into a comfortable life as an anthropology professor’s wife. When reality shatters her dream, May forges a new path with the help of her extended family, including her cousin Naomi, a middle-aged Black midwife.

Naomi, Mattie’s descendant, is a full character with her own arc, and her point of view alternates with May’s in different chapters. She longs to buy a home with a yard for growing vegetables and room for her kin under one roof. But just when she thinks she’s caught hold of the brass ring of homeownership, she finds her efforts undercut by racist housing policies.

As in Ibrahim’s other novels, pressing social themes—birth control, eugenics and disability, segregation, “passing,” and World War I—figure prominently in the narrative but never feel gratuitous. There’s no need to have read the previous three volumes to appreciate May’s and Naomi’s grit and courage, symbolized by the red carnation women wore during the war. The author also provides a genealogical chart of the two entwined families for reference.