I‘m a recent transplant in Virginia from Southern California, so when reading the first few chapters of Mimi Herman’s newest release, The Kudzu Queen, I was very sure that kudzu was a strictly fictional plant—I’d never heard of it before and it was described in the novel’s first few pages as “more versatile than cotton, more profitable than tobacco, and more nutritious than corn” by a preacher-like man on a green truck. Only when a friend pointed out real-life kudzu vines all along the houses and trees and telephone poles on a drive out to dinner did I realize how uninformed I was.
“It’s an invasive species,” my friend said. A quick Google search that night told me kudzu, a perennial vine native to parts of Asia and the Pacific Islands, is now a creepy-crawly nuisance in the Southern landscape. It was introduced to the United States in the 1930s as a common garden plant, and, following a series of dust storms that razed the South, the U.S. government, along with the Kudzu Club of America, promoted it heavily for its use in combating soil erosion.
The history of kudzu, coined as a “miracle vine” by those hailing it, is the catalyst for the events of The Kudzu Queen. The novel tells of a young girl’s experience when her town is visited by a kudzu evangelist in the early 1940s. Mattie Lee Watson is the charming young narrator painting an immersive portrait of an idyllic, North Carolina town swept up in the pageantry of the kudzu craze, The Kudzu Queen feels like the coming-of-age, historical fiction that I would’ve loved to read in high school.
Easily the best thing about The Kudzu Queen is its narrator and protagonist, Mattie, who is my next great literary heroine. Herman gives us much insight into who Mattie is through her dialogue with others and an abundance of interiority. Mattie is a steady presence to her family and friends – imaginative, empathetic and earnest. Though she often misreads the expressions of those around her and doesn’t understand why people do what they do, she is also the first to admit it, which makes her even more endearing and the perfect narrator for the story as it unfolds.
In the first few pages of the book, Mattie witnesses the introduction of kudzu to her town in Cooper County, North Carolina, and develops an instant crush on the promoter, James T. Cullowee. With his green Chevy truck full of kudzu cuttings and the promise that kudzu will be the next cash crop of the South, I readily recognized Mr. Cullowee as a scam artist though others, like Mattie and her sweet brothers, Joey and Danny, are pulled in by Mr. Cullowee’s oozing Southern charm and good looks. They, and the rest of the many believers in Cooper County, partake in growing kudzu in their dead fields and organizing a Kudzu Queen pageant for the young women in the county.
The community in Cooper County is vibrantly rendered in their day-to-day activities. Herman’s descriptions of mornings on family farms doing chores, full-on family dinners with dessert, Saturdays spent in a busy, incorporated city where everyone does their shopping and hot days spent at the watering hole are only made better by the characters inhabiting the scenes. I found myself delighted and attached to Mattie’s peers, with whom she shares entertaining, yet insightful, dialogue. There’s Rose, a former childhood friend of Mattie’s now distanced due to ongoing segregation; Carl, a boy she may or may not like but who she does end up going on a date with; and last, but not least, Mattie’s soft-spoken best friend, Lynette, whose family is doled out the most tragic of hands throughout the novel.
Even in such a picturesque setting, the novel does contain darkness, and not only in the treachery of James T. Cullowee. In some ways, Mr. Cullowee and kudzu mirror each other, kudzu being a device used to highlight how corrupted Mr. Cullowee is as a character. But with Mattie at the helm of this book, I had a wonderful feeling that things would come to a justified end for all. With a protagonist as fiercely determined as her and a setting so connected to American history, The Kudzu Queen is sure to be an instant classic, alongside To Kill A Mockingbird and The Bluest Eye.
The Kudzu Queen
By Mimi Herman
Regal House Publishing
January 10, 2023