Clover by Dori Sanders is set in 1980s rural South Carolina. Told from the point of view of ten-year-old Clover, a bright girl who has already seen a lot of tragedy in her young life, the story is about her and her new stepmother dealing with the unexpected death of her father. Further complicating matters is Clover is black and her stepmother, Sara Kate, is white. The two barely know each other as her father is killed in a car crash the day of his wedding.
I really enjoyed the book especially as Sanders really captured the voice of Clover; something I think is difficult to successful pull off. Clover comes across as smart and wise, but not in a matter that ever comes across as precocious or false.
One of two big themes of the book are relationships, primarily Clover’s complicated relationship with the grown-ups in her life in addition to the relationships the grown-ups have with each other. Her relationship with her father, principal at her elementary school and which is told through flashbacks starts off strained. Initially Clover had been raised by her grandfather after her mother died. Now that her father is close by, he wishes to take over the caretaker duties. Because of this, she almost nearly refers to her father by his first name, something Gaten never corrects. Gaten is a good person and a good father, mature enough to recognize he has to earn the title of “Dad”.
A pattern develops with Clover in having a difficult time trusting her caregivers when Sara Kate becomes her stepmother. Like Gaten, Sara Kate doesn’t press Clover to accept her as a parent, mainly because she’s going through her own grief. She gives her new stepdaughter space to process her grief as well though an incident happens which causes Sara Kate to wonder if Clover is holding in her grief in an unhealthy way. As the reader sees with Gaten, Sara Kate eventually earns Clover’s love and trust, which rankles Clover’s Aunt Everleen.
Another major theme is race. Sanders is honest in how Clover’s family reacts to Sara Kate. In a way she’s a little bit subtle because as a reader it wasn’t apparent for several pages Clover was black. It’s only when Sara Kate is introduced that the reader is made aware. Gaten’s family, primarily the women, and an ex-girlfriend have the biggest issue with Sara Kate. Aunt Everleen and others believe it was a mistake Gaten married a white woman believing Sara Kate must have some defect if a white man wouldn’t love her. Because of the color of her skin, no one is willing to reach out to her and get to know her or even offer words of comfort and support. It doesn’t matter Sara Kate is nice (a bit too passive in my opinion) and makes an effort to be part of her new family. Prejudices run rampant until near the end of the book. The attitude of Clover’s family affects how she sees and treats Sara Kate initially. When Clover and Sara Kate start to get to know each, Clover starts defending Sara Kate in front of her Aunt Everleen. She’s rebuked, made to feel as if she’s betraying her family and ultimately, her race.
I enjoyed the characters though it personally frustrates me as a reader to see how if people just communicated a lot of problems wouldn’t exist. I appreciate how Sanders allows the characters to take their time in grieving Gaten, but to realize everyone has a common goal: to care for Clover, a girl surrounded by love. I appreciate the awkwardness Clover and Sara Kate have toward each other. It’s realistic and dealt with sensitivity.
I also enjoyed how Sanders uses the setting of small town South Carolina. Probably because I live in South Carolina, very near to many of the towns mentioned, that it was incredibly ease for me to immerse myself in the world. I know what the weather feels like and I’ve seen peach stands in the area (South Carolina actually produces more peaches than Georgia).
My only grip with Clover is the ending. It felt too abrupt and I would have liked to see the story continue on as the changes in the characters were just starting to happen. But perhaps that’s the point of the novel. It’s ultimately about watching these characters come to the beginning of understanding.
Overall, I give Clover four pencils out of five. It’s a quick read and while sad and deals with heavy issues, it’s not a downer.