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 on-line 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 importantly
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.