book Turnip Blues

reviewed by Vivian Dorsel

Published in Issue No. 27 ~ August, 1999

I probably never would have read this book if it hadn’t been for Heather Drake of the Pittsfield Barnes & Noble. “I just finished the weirdest novel,” she said, “and I can’t stop thinking about it.” I found it on the shelf, started reading it over a large decaf latte in the CafĂ©, and ended up buying it and taking it home.

Helen Campbell’s first novel, Turnip Blues, is the story of two 75-year-old Slav-American (“Hunkie”) widows who set off on a road trip from their hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh, to visit the burial place of Bessie Smith in Sharon Hill, on the outskirts of Philadelphia. When Mrs. Lemack reads in a newspaper article that the late blues singer — her lifetime idol — rests in an untended grave in a run-down cemetery, she is determined to go there and make sure that Bessie receives the care and respect she deserves. After much pleading and argument she persuades her childhood friend, Mrs. Kuzo, to accompany her, and off they go in Mrs. Lemack’s Firebird, stocked with their suitcases and “Three sacks of groceries, […]gardening tools, twenty pounds of peat moss, […] beach towels, raincoat, boots, straw hat, crossword puzzles, and Parcheesi,” along with a good supply of Bessie Smith tapes for musical accompaniment.