February 16, 1997
‘The Hand I Fan With’
makes for hot reading
By Karen Strawn
Special to The Pantagraph
Throughout “The Hand I Fan With” newcomer fiction author Tina McElroy Ansa never falls away from the heartbeat of a woman’s reality – her needs, dreams, goals, desires and fantasies.
This provides the main drive of this page-turning account of main character Lena McPherson and her relationship with a 100-year-old ghost named Herman.
Following her two best selling novels, “Baby of the Family” and “Ugly Ways,” Ansa recaps Lena’s inner journey of becoming a whole woman despite the fact she was born with a caul (a thin piece of skin) covering her face, making her supernaturally clairvoyant and alive to all kinds of spirit-world calamity.
When this book begins, Lena’s parents have been dead for 10 years. Her two brothers, Raymond and Charles have also passed, leaving Lena in charge of the family’s lucrative bar and grill called “The Place” in the fictional town of Mulberry, Ga.
Because of Lena’s clairvoyance (or “magic touch” as the townspeople call it,” everything she touches succeeds.
However, in order to feel good about herself, Lena must give to people each day – make a way for less fortunate folks, be a big sister to a homeless child, feed, clothes, employ, co0sign loans and be available for those in need within her town.
After years of playing this role, “so like a boulder on the small of her back pressing down insistently, constantly.” Lena becomes the most prominent citizen in Mulberry - she is the hand they fan with.
Once Lena gets a life of her own and she stops micro managing everybody else’s life there are extraordinary consequences.
It wasn’t that folks in Mulberry were just talking about Lena and her new odd “self-centered” behavior. It was that they were now calling themselves worried about her, ready to take action.
Asking a month themselves at “The Place” over their beer and wine, “What we gonna do ‘bout Lena? What we gonna do ‘bout our girl?” Meeting at intersections, learning out of their cars, “Don’t she seems strange to you?” Lifting the hood dryers in beauty shops to ask their salon partners, “You think she’s having a nervous breakdown? Ain’t none of ya’ll met The Man?”
Lena’s clairvoyance allows her to hear all the talk about her and it drives her to a confrontation with the townspeople that ends with a surprising twist for the best in both camps.
For the most part, this story is written with rich, deep and lengthy diversions, during which the characters are made real to the reader.
So well written are these sideshows that the reader becomes very close to the characters.
At first it seems the
attention to detail the author is giving serves no purpose but to make the story
But it’s during these diversions, which happen inside Lena’s head and can last an entire chapter, that you meet best-friend Sister, the ocean ghost-girl Rachel, Lena’s mother Nellie and father Jonah, ranch-hand James Petersen and Lena’s grand mama.
The old Southern dialect is so thick it makes reading a little difficult so you have to read slowly. But the slow reading is effective because old Southern dialect demands your full attention. “I care ‘bout everythang got to d owi’ you, Lena. Like I tole ya this mo’nin’, I’m you’ man. I loves you already. You just got t’decide if you my woman. That’s all.” Speed-readers will miss out on personality traits of characters if the dialog is just skimmed over.
The rich use of African-American traditions including lyrics to favorite songs and a recipe for Brunswick Stew -–"“ake one large hog’s head. Scrub it. Remove the hair, eyes and brains. Set brains aside for breakfast next morning for brains and eggs.”
After 45 years of being single, Lena and best-friend Sister conjure up a man for her in a last-ditch ritual performed by the two women on the deck of Lena’s home.
Weeks after the late-night
ritual, Herman appears in Lena’s bathroom while she’s taking a shower.
What is written in the pages that follow is the story of how this ghost-man comes to live with Lena an gently and quietly changes her life forever.
Appropriately named, Herman satisfies Lena’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs in dimensions far beyond any romance novel.
He is indeed her man and the author’s use of language and sex vividly describe this. The timid reader will blush. The immature reader will no understand. The closed-minded reader will be offended.
Herman prided himself
on seldom having to rely on his ghostly power to impress, please or take care
of Lena. He opened Lena back up to the earth and the universe. Now she tried
to be attuned to everything, every thought, every prayer and wish that came
across her path. Not to solve the problems of the world or even to alleviate
the suffering but just to take note and learn.
“Yo need to be mo’ like Mary and less like Martha,” Herman would tell her gently when she still went off to take care of somebody. “Choose the better part, baby.”
“The Hand I Fan With” is a refreshing change on the literary scene. The story of Lena and Herman is one that will stay long after the book is put down, challenging the reader to consider where they fit in the scheme of life.