“Child Bride,” a first novel by Jennifer Smith Turner of Oak Bluffs set for mid-April release, takes us on a long, treacherous journey from the deepest reaches of the segregated South to the purported bastion of enlightenment, Boston, sometime in the middle of the last century. That the heroine, Nell Jones, finds herself more restricted in the latter is a function of sexism more than racism, but it’s no less challenging for someone who yearns to spread her wings.
Nell is born into a poor but loving family on a farm in Louisiana in the middle of the last century. The youngest of 12 children, her family life is prescribed by routine: men work the farm, women keep house and produce babies. When her brothers marry, their wives become part of the Jones household; when a sister marries, she moves out. It was the life cycle they knew, all they had time to know. This was the rural Deep South in that era. And if you were black, as were the Joneses, you kept your head down and your voice, too.
Baby Girl, as Nell is called by her parents, never questions her narrow path forward, but her love of reading leads her to dream about the world beyond the farm’s property line. As curious as she is resourceful, she is tantalized by the possibility of expanding her mind and her horizons.
When she turns 16, Nell’s life changes forever when Henry, an acquaintance of the family, appears and tells her that he wants her as his wife. To his surprise, she points out that she expects him to court her. For a few months he comes around every evening to talk with her, listen to her read, tell her of his plan to move to Boston, where he has family and a job waiting. Intrigued by what she sees as an adventure, she says yes the second time he proposes. They are married within days, and the next thing she knows they are on a bus headed north.
Whatever she imagined about living in a city in the north, her life becomes a nightmare almost immediately. Jealous and controlling, Henry doesn’t allow her to go out alone, ever, from their one-room apartment, and within two months of their arrival, Nell is pregnant with the first of three children she would bear in three years. Stifled and overwhelmed, she is barely able to see how unhappy she is.
When she finally confronts Henry and insists that she and the children be allowed to attend church with him, it takes every ounce of her courage to do so. He acquiesces, but grudgingly, perhaps sensing that her curiosity and spirit, once loosed, will undermine his hold on her. The church, as it turns out, is Nell’s salvation, though not in the way she might have anticipated.
Once she gets a taste of freedom, Nell’s life becomes harrowing and joyful, as she allows herself to follow her passion. She finds love, then loses it; she is welcomed into a supportive community, then ostracized. The mother of four by the time she is 22, she has already experienced enough highs and lows to fill most lifetimes. She is also just getting started, as it turns out, on a path that will, in time, take her as far afield as Martha’s Vineyard, an otherworldly landing spot, considering her background and circumstances, even if she is on the Island just as a summer resident. She will also have a chance to restart her education, which, with her family, she was forced to abandon when she moved north with Henry.
With his obsessive behavior and his limited, rigid approach to marriage, Henry’s lack of depth as a character seems like a missed opportunity for the author. While the primary focus is and should be on Nell, credible secondary characters help bring headliners to life.
It takes a reference to the gruesome murder of Emmet Till to place the story chronologically. But the absence of specific dates also lends a timeless quality to the novel, adding to its power.
Turner has been a writer throughout her life, journaling and writing poetry since she can remember. Her professional life centered on the insurance industry in Hartford, Conn., where she held a number of executive positions at both Aetna and Travelers. Eventually she became President/CEO of BerkleyCare Network in Greenwich, Conn. In the mid 1980s she served as Director of Personnel and then Assistant City Manager for the City of Hartford. In 2004 she was appointed Deputy Commissioner for the Department of Economic and Community Development for the State of Connecticut. Somehow she also found time to publish two books of poetry during this period, “Perennial Secrets” (2003), and “Lost and Found, Rhyming Verse Honoring African-American Heroes” (2006). Turner’s friend and mentor, Maya Angelou, described the former as, “an elegant work. The language is sheer and the imagery delicate. It shimmers with light. I am very glad to put it on my poetry shelf.”
The list of organizations, both nonprofit and academic, she has served as a board member is long and impressive. Just last year she had to jump in for several months as CEO of the Newman’s Own Foundation to get it back on the rails after management turmoil. She retired as the CEO of the Girl Scouts of Connecticut when she moved here full-time in 2012.
Retirement is a relative term for someone as active as Turner, who continues to be President/CEO of Smith & Associates LLC, a management consulting company. A board member of Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard, she is also an active volunteer/contributor at Featherstone, Noepe Center for Literary Arts, and the M.V. Film Center, where last summer she exhibited photos from a recent trip to Africa. She is also a member of the Cleaveland House Poets. She has studied at the M.V. Institute of Creative Writing, whose director, Alexander Weinstein, helped edit “Child Bride.” For pleasure, Turner likes to read and travel with her husband, Eric, to whom “Child Bride” is dedicated.
A self-described workaholic, she also clearly qualifies as a renaissance woman. It’s not so often you come across a former President/CEO who is also a poet, photographer, novelist, and community activist. We’re lucky to have her here.
“Child Bride,” Jennifer Smith Turner, SparkPress. Available now for preorder online and at jennifersmithturner.com. Once published, it will be available at Island bookstores.