Zora and Me
is a fictionalized children’s novel by T.R. Simon. Following a young detective in a small Florida town, it is loosely based on the life and personality of Zora Neale Hurston, a writer in the Black Renaissance movement that emerged in Harlem, New York in the early 20th century. The book is known as a unique rendering of the life of an African-American child during the era of Jim Crow laws, and the ways in which children empower themselves to survive harsh social realities through storytelling.
The novel is set at the beginning of the 20th century in the black town of Eatonville, Florida. It is the norm for the United States government to relegate black people to their own insular communities separate from white people. Zora, a young girl with a reputation for her creative storytelling and propensity to tell convincing lies, hangs out with her best friend Carrie, who narrates the story. Carrie lives with Zora’s family, her father having left the town for work and never returning home. Zora’s “stories” usually incorporate truth about their town, but spin them into fictions, often incorporating elements of magical realism
to tell greater, but veiled, truths about her perception of the town. Zora’s father dismisses her for desiring an education, accusing her of trying to act white. His anxiety about white performativity reflects his strong faith in the unifying power of black community-making.
Meanwhile, Carrie also explicates the character of the town of Eatonville. Many of its residents commute to the nearby Lake Maitland to work at hotels and in the homes of wealthy white families. Accompanying her mother on one of these trips, Zora eavesdrops on her mother’s conversation with a clerk at a store, learning that she is “shopping” for a white person to employ her, a taboo objective because the town prides itself on resisting the encroachment of white society. She learns of similar taboo stories, such as that of a black woman who is discovered to be passing as white.
One day, Zora tells a peculiar story about a man who is able to shapeshift into an alligator. She goes around town spreading the story to its residents, who don’t take her seriously. The story takes a dramatic turn when Zora’s tale appears to foreshadow
the death of a man named Ivory, a turpentine worker who is making a visit to the town. Zora overhears her mother stating that his decapitated body has been found near the railroad tracks. Zora believes that the culprit is the shapeshifting man from her story. Two of Zora’s acquaintances, Teddy and Carrie, who initially rejected her story, begin to believe it. Their official suspect becomes a reclusive man named Mr. Pendir who lives in a neighboring house; Zora names him the “gator man,” modeled after an entity she created that lurks in the town’s nearby marshes and tries to steal human souls.
Carrie and Zora meet a woman named Gold, who reveals that Ivory’s death was accidental, and that he had been visiting her on leave from his job as a turpentine worker. The mysticism of the story they had held so strongly to dissolves, and they learn a lesson about letting fantasy interfere with the equally real tragedies of real life.
A story that evokes themes of black identity, southern culture, community, alienation, and is deeply intertwined with magical realism involving metaphors of the American South, Zora and Me
provides a portrait of a young girl’s mind as it responds to her complicated world. Whiteness, passing, injustice, and crisis of identity are all problems a typical black person in the Jim Crow era had to casually endure. Despite these challenges, Simon writes as someone who is sensitive to the beauty and creativity that such a complicated world makes possible.