With five healthy children and a war which allowed for Leston's steady work, "a twisted sort of blessing," as Jewel noted, the Hilburns were happy and believed life would continue in a slow-paced Mississippi way. But when Jewel and Leston's sixth is born a "Mongolian Idiot," as the New Orleans doctor declared, their life changes and Jewel leads her family on a journey to California that will bring all manner of hardship and joy.
In post-war Los Angeles, a city brimming with promise, Jewel gratefully adopts new terms that replace the stinging words "Mongolian Idiot" to describe her daughter Brenda Kay's situation. She also learns to replace her own words that sting, substituting colored for "nigger." And, most importantly she learns what one person's will can do and the power of love. With these great tools, she forges a mother-daughter bond that strengthens the whole family, allowing a life as rich in blessings as it is in strife.
Through Jewel's eye's we witness the progress of her family through the generations against a backdrop of America undergoing it's own myriad post-war transformations. A vividly drawn indomitable heroine, Jewel defines the intensity of a mother-child relationship and the depth of family love. "Sweeping and beautifully written," praised The New York Times Book Review, Jewel is a "parable for our age."
Originally from Los Angeles, Bret Lott is the author of the novels The Man Who Owned Vermont, A Stranger's House, Jewel, Reed's Beach, and The Hunt Club, just published by Villard Books of Random House.
He is also the author of the story collections A Dram of Old Leaves and How To Get Home, and the memoir Fathers, Sons and Brothers. His short stories have been widely anthologized, and have appeared in such journals as The Yale Review, Story, and The Southern Review, and have been read on National Public Radio in nationwide broadcasts.
Selections from Fathers, Sons and Brothers have appeared in, among other places, The Chicago Tribune, The Antioch Review, The Gettysburg Review and Iowa Review, and have been cited in the 1994, 1995, and 1996 volumes of Best American Essays.
Mr. Lott graduated from Cal State Long Beach in 1981, and received his MFA in 1984 from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he studied writing under the late James Baldwin. After teaching at Ohio State from 1984 to 1986, he accepted a teaching position at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina, where he is writer-in-residence and professor of English. He lives in Mt. Pleasant with his wife, Melanie, and two sons, Zebulum and Jacob.
The books I cherish most – the ones I reread and reread again – are those that speak to me of the love of family, of its necessity to any understanding of ourselves as individuals, for who are we but elements of the larger whole of family? My copy of Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, about two orphaned girls left to be raised by their mysteriously whimsical aunt Sylvie, is worn out for the number times I've been through it, as is my copy of First Light by Charles Baxter, a novel mapping the meaning of brother and sister. Another favorite I've read too many times to count is Toni Morrison's Beloved, for its portrait of a familial love so beautiful and terrible and deep it can abide even in death; and Jayne Anne Phillips' Machine Dreams, a rewarding and painful saga chronicling the rise and fall of a West Virginia family from World War II to the Vietnam War.
But my most cherished book, the one that has transformed me and from which I read every day, is the Bible. Though I know this sounds like a Sunday sermon, the Bible has been – and is – the single most influential book in my life, the book that inspires me, challenges me, changes me, confirms me. Like the character Jewel, the people found throughout it are at once strong and weak, well-meaning and flawed, stubborn and loving, all of them wrestling with the will of God; and there at the center of it all is Christ, God on earth, to show us what genuine love really is: the surrendering of self for others.
Family, and finding oneself within the family, both of God and man. That's what's important to me, what I've been led all my writing life to try and understand, and what these extraordinary books have led me to see: that family matters.
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Pocket Books has provided the following discussion questions to enrich your reading of Jewel , by Bret Lott. It's our hope that through your consideration of them you'll discover fresh perspectives from which to view this story of devotion, perseverance and strength. Enjoy!
- Jewel's mother called the stories of who Jewel was and where she came from, "stones in your pocket." What did she mean by this? What were Jewel's "stones" and how did they affect the course of her life?
- "I say unto you that the baby you be carrying be yo' hardship, be yo' test in this world. This by my prohpehsying unto you, Miss Jewel." These words of Cathedral not only carried great portent, but haunted Jewel throughout her life. Discuss the various implications of Cathedral's prophecy. With this same statement, the author interjects a spiritual element to the story. Is it believable? Or does it seem to run counter to the tone of the rest of the book?
- When Jewel slaps Cathedral, it is a defining moment for both of them. Besides being an expression of Jewel blaming Cathedral for Brenda Kay's accident, what else did this act signify? Was slapping Cathedral, a slap at faith?
- Did Jewel's determination and action-oriented path to help Brenda Kay diminish Jewel's religious faith?
- When Jewel returns to make amends with Cathedral and is offered no comfort, why does Cathedral reject her? Why is Cathedral angry and unforgiving?
- What did the author assign the names Jewel and Cathedral to these characters? Are we to assign meaning to them? If so, what?
- Jewel's attitude toward blacks and her understanding of racial issues evolved after moving to California. Was she able to overcome all of her prejudice? Did she eventually see blacks and whites as equal?
- To what degree did the racial attitudes of the south compared to those of Los Angeles affect Leston's ability to adjust to life in Los Angeles? Is Leston a racist? Discuss his attitude toward Blacks.
Was Jewel's decision to move to California based solely on getting help for Brenda Kay or was she just as eager to climb out of the ignorance and stagnation of being "white trash?"
Can any of Jewel's determination to do better for herself, for Brenda Kay, and for her family, be attributed to Missy Cook, the grandmother whom she despised? What was the significance of Missy Cook burning Jewel and her mother's belongings? What did it mean to Missy Cook? What did it mean to Jewel?
Was Jewel fair to Leston? Did she sacrifice too much of him, his happiness, his wishes for Brenda Kay? Did Leston die a broken man?
Leston implies that because of Jewel's fierce love and determination Brenda Kay would have come progressed just as far if they remained in Mississippi. Do you agree?
Why does Leston throw away the lighter that he proclaims is the one thing that will always be his? What finally makes him agree to sell the house he built and move to California? Was it weakness in the face of Jewel's fierce will, or was it the strength of his love for her? Does the author let us know Leston as much as we need to in order to understand all of his actions?
How would the experience of a woman today giving birth to a child with Down's syndrome differ from Jewel's? How would it be the same?
Jewel considered Brenda Kay both a burden and a blessing. Were these in equal parts? What blessings did Brenda Kay bring? In the end, did Jewel see her as the hardship she had to bear?
If Brenda Kay had been born a normal child, what would have happened to Jewel and her family? Would they have stayed in Mississippi?
Did Jewel love Brenda Kay more than her other children?
Is Jewel a believable character? Is she flawed enough or too good to be real?
"Brett Lott's Jewel is a beautifully carafted first-person epic of one poor southern woman's personal duel with God...This is a voice we don't want to stop hearing...some of the tenderest scenes of family love since those in Dickens..."
— Chicago Tribune "Lott is one of the most important and imaginative writers in America today. His eye for detail is unparalleled; his vision — where he looks — is like no one else's in this country."
— Los Angeles Times "Brett Lott has a gift for making the ordinary seem luminous. In Jewel, he applies his art to a broad canvas and produces what may stand as his masterpiece....Lott matches the honest strength of his characters with that of his prose. His Jewel is a perfect, seamless union of teller and tale."
— Boston Globe "Brett Lott's brilliant novel Jewel is a reminder of one of the chief reasons to read: for the experience, for the story. Jewel is a simple first-person tale of a family that faces life with courage, if not always insight, and grows wiser for the doing. The work has the solid characterizations of Steinbeck or Harper Lee -- and the corollary scope and universality of three-dimensional people doing believable things... Brett Lott's creation of full humanity in Jewel, both in voice and spirit, is near-perfect.... This book is pure gift."
— The Dallas Morning News Times