John Sheirer’s Review

By John Sheirer (Connecticut) – See all my reviews

Reviewed for Nights and Weekends by John Sheirer

The nameless young girl at the center of Diane Payne's wonderful Burning Tulips is asked to write about an "important human" for a school assignment. She chooses instead to write about the family dog because, in her own words, "… it seems like all my important humans would make a sad story."

Such is life for Payne's protagonist, who grows from age five to eighteen and must deal with her mother's cancer, her father's abuse, her family's poverty, her growing sexuality, her constant spiritual crisis, her sense of social injustice during the turbulent 1960s-even her poor penmanship. With so much stacked against her, readers might expect a stereotypical self-pitying child/adolescent/teenager. She does experience plenty of anger, fear, shame, and sadness, but Payne has crafted a complex character brimming with humor, hope, strength, love, and a burning sense that her life has an abundant future despite her deprived and isolated present.

Payne's work has appeared widely in print and internet literary publications. In fact, many sections of Burning Tulips first appeared as outstanding stand-alone pieces, usually under the banner of "memoir." Whether this book is a partially fictionalized memoir or fiction based on the author's own experiences is an interesting question. But more important is how Payne deftly employs a memoirist's psychological insight along with a novelist's skill in structure, pace, and narrative voice to create a haunting book that resonates authentic depth of emotion.

Burning Tulips comes to us through Red Hen Press, a lively independent publisher bringing out some terrific poetry, memoir, and fiction that would never find a place with today's megapublishers focused on high-concept bestsellers. Bestsellers have their place: the beach or long airplane flights-situations where passing the time is more important than challenging the heart and mind with literature. Discerning readers will instead be far more satisfied with the excellent Burning Tulips than any garden-variety bestseller. In short, it's a beautiful book well worth reading.

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