What would you do if your father, who apparently loves you unconditionally, tells you to change who you are for a year? That is exactly what happens to Jo, after her father, a preacher, marries for the third time. Not only that, Jo is forced to move from metropolitan Atlanta, to Rome, Georgia. This would be fine except, after a near disgrace at their wedding involving Jo’s friend Dana, Joanna’s father has told Joanna to lay low about her sexuality. This in itself is loathsome – her father is apparently accepting of Jo’s sexuality, but his new wife, the values of her and her family and his career as a radio preacher are at stake. Joanna resentfully agrees, thinking about a graduation trip she will take with her best friend, Dana, when it is all over. Brown’s novel, Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit, highly reviewed in the Kirkus Review and a Chicago Library Best Book of the Year, broaches the subject of pleasing ones parents, staying true to oneself and following/ not following what is expected of you, whether through the lens of religion, society or both.
The beginning of this book read like a horror novel. Telling your daughter that she cannot be who she is could be one of the most traumatic experiences of ones life. I have friends and family that are gay whose parents still keep that knowledge a secret to their own family and community. My parents have always been accepting of who I am. The closest thing I have experienced that has been similar to Jo’s story is that my father disowned me for a time. This was because he did not approve of my boyfriend (now husband) and of us living together. It was a heart wrenching experience and in that year, I had never been so unhappy to be both disconnected from my father, and to feel like I was being treated like a child (we started speaking again when we got engaged). It is clear that Joanna’s father loves her, but this appalling request is unacceptable. Her stepmother tries to connect with her, but both of them do not understand the harm, damage and invalidation they are causing in their daughter.
Growing up Catholic, I have seen firsthand the hypocrisy of people who claim to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. This is Jesus, the same person who loved the sinner, the prostitute or leper. I have seen people very close to me say, “what a shame,” or “I will pray for them,” when they discovered that someone was gay- as if it was just that, something to be ashamed of, or fearful of. In this way, this story is one that I care very much about. This text serves many people. First, it serves young people who identify as LGBTIA+. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is the use of setting (rural town) and religion. Many young people live in this exact type of situation- situations where there is the small town feel, but in addition, there is also bigotry and small mindedness. Brown’s purpose for writing this novel is included in the acknowledgements where she says,
“As you walk away from this novel, there’s one thing I’d like you to take with you, and that’s the knowledge that there are many people in the world who think you are perfect just the way you are. Go out and find them.” (Brown, p. 422).
For young people, I cannot think of better advice. They need people that will accept them as they are and love them as they are. In the case of Jo, she is lucky enough to have both family and friends who accept her for who she is. Another realistic situation would be that a person might need to find their own circle of people who love them, that might very well not include any family members.
I found the premise of this problem novel to be frustrating and absurd. If Jo’s father has accepted her since she came out as a lesbian years ago, it is highly doubtful that he would ask her to (essentially) pretend she was straight – all because he married a woman whose mother is conservative and ultra-judgmental. At the same time, I was also incredibly engaged as I read it. For a novel that frustrated me, topping over 400 pages, I finished it in two days. The writing style is clear and easy to follow and while the story itself is absurd, I know that young LGBTQIA+ young people deal with pressures and stress that I could never imagine. Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit, especially shines when the characters speak up for what they believe, no matter the repercussions from the community. In an impassioned speech, Jo’s friend, Gemma says,
“When the people you love more than anything in the world reveal themselves and they’re scared and nervous and fearful of loss of love, then something’s wrong… All they’re telling us is they want to be free to love….What the hell’s wrong with that? (Brown, p. 353)
As a former Catholic, I see people in the LGBTQIA+ community grapple with their faith and the exclusion of being included in many religions. Consequently, I appreciate this book for its message of love and openness, especially in regards to a small town, conservative, religious community. It is not a work of high art, but the message is potent and long-lasting.
Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit, puts the main character, Jo, in a terrible situation- as she moves to Rome, Georgia, with her father and new stepmother, she is asked to tone down her sexuality. Said in another way, she is asked to pretend she is a heterosexual. Jo, shockingly agrees, using a paltry post graduation trip as her incentive. This problem novel is distressing and upsetting in many ways- Jo’s pledge to her foolish father creates a situation in which Jo lies and lies and lies, hurting others around her and nearly destroying herself. At the same time, many young people deal with worse situations – parents disapproving or disowning their children. The redeeming quality of this book is that it offers a lesson to others of remaining true to oneself, in addition to propagating a message of acceptance and love. For those reasons, I recommend this book to any library that serves young adults.
Brown, J.R. (2018). Georgia peaches and other forbidden fruit. Harperteen.