A REVIEW OF
“John and Mary Margaret”
By Susan Cushman
Koehler Books (July 2021)
Softback; 182 pages
Novel follows romance of two lovers caring for family with Alzheimer’s
By Susan O’Bryan
Special to The Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
Storytelling is an art. It’s a talent that brings forth mental images, memorable characters and an emotion that lingers long after the last words.
Susan Cushman, a petite southern woman with large fashionable glasses, is a story artist. The former takes a simple story and a thread of words and spins them into heartfelt gold. She’s done it with earlier work, and she’s done it again with “John and Mary Margaret.”
John Abbott and Mary Margaret Richardson reconnect after more than four decades spent thinking about each other, yet seldom seeing each other. Their first time together didn’t end well for their too-soon-for-the-times young romance. After all, John was black, Mary Margaret was white society, and it was 1966 at the University of Mississippi.
We meet the couple as they attend a local book club. The guest author has written a book about Alzheimer’s disease, a cruel illness that has touched both John and Mary Margaret. The author wants to know more about their personal story, so she visits them. She quickly learns that there is more, much more to the couple’s tale of love found, lost and then found again.
Cushman uses alternating time periods to recount a romance that was brought to its knees by racial unrest at that time in Mississippi and Memphis. The author unflinchingly describes the ignorance and mean-spiritedness so common in that era. Yes, the book is a novel, but its fiction is based on fact.
John and Mary Margaret go their separate ways, but thoughts of each other—and first love—linger. John becomes a successful judge and civil rights advocate. Mary Margaret shares her passion for education teaching at a prestigious school. They ran in different social circles, but Memphis is much like a small town—they always knew about the other’s accomplishments and honors. As the couple age, their children reap the fruits of integrated education, mutual respect and fewer biases.
Life goes on for the two families. Then Alzheimer’s disease slams into it like a runaway train. John’s wife and Mary Margaret’s husband are now patients, and neighbors, at a nearby nursing home. When the pair reconnect during a visit to their loved ones, the friendship that drew them together back in the 1960s reblooms. This time it’s strengthened not by the love of Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, but the love for their spouses. John and Mary Margaret hold each other up as their spouses go further down Alzheimer’s dark hole. They help each other realize that the next chapters in their lives have yet to be written.
Cushman uses this novel to give a new perspective to the past and present. When her characters push for change, they are pushing for the future. Yes, there are struggles and sadness, but with those comes humor. The novel gently, but determinedly, encourages the reader to look at life with clear lenses.
It’s a simple story with complex undertones. “John and Mary Margaret” is pure Susan Cushman, an author who uses simple words, personal life experiences and respect for others to create stories that always carry a message. She loves her southern roots and the relationships that spring forth. Whether she’s working on her next novel, editing others’ essays or spreading Alzheimer’s disease awareness, Cushman is gold for readers who enjoy fiction woven with truth.
Susan O’Bryan is a retired Clarion-Ledger newspaper editor and web content coordinator. She is an avid reader who enjoys discovering new writers, plots, and angles for fiction and non-fiction publications.