What if the most important clue to solving a crime is a tiny, collectible penny? That is the premise in Treva Hall Martin’s novel Mr. Samuel’s Penny. Learning the identity of murderer falls on fourteen year old, Elizabeth Landers, a young woman visiting her family in Ahoskie, North Carolina. Elizabeth cherishes the time she gets to spend with her Aunt Al and her Uncle Frank in their rural community. It is a huge change from her New York home, but she is not prepared to deal with some of the difficulties of living in the South during the early 1970s.
Mr. Samuel’s Penny opens with the death of Mr. Samuel, the owner of a local lumberyard. For reasons unknown, his car veers off a bridge. In the car with Mr. Samuel is his infant daughter. Though he was found clutching a distinctive penny in his hand when he died, the penny is missing from the other evidence when it is examined. Lizbeth knows that if she finds the penny again, it will be in the hand of Mr. Samuel’s murderer. She spends the rest of the summer on the lookout for it.
Mr. Samuel’s Penny is about far more than the mystery of who murdered Mr. Samuel. This is a good thing—and a bad one. First, it is a good thing because the other aspect of the story is a far more compelling one than the murder mystery. Lizbeth encounters many examples of prejudice and unkindness in the town. The expectations that are placed upon whites and African Americans is well represented here, as is the distrust that the communities have toward one another. It is a credit to Hall Martin that she presents these obstacles in a measured way, and I particularly enjoyed how the characters changed their perceptions of one another as the novel progressed.
I enjoyed the characterization of Violet Samuel, the widow of the dead man, and her efforts to overcome her grief. Some other supporting characters provided some much needed coming relief—including a crazy old aunt and a mean, spiteful woman named “Ms McMeanie”, who ends up getting her comeuppance in the end. I found myself wanting to spend more time with these characters and to inhabit their every day lives. That would have been a compelling enough story.
This brings me to the part that is not a good thing. The genre of this novel was all over the place. Is it a mystery about the penny and the murder of a good man and his daughter? Is it a commentary on race relations after the Civil Rights era? Is it a coming of age tale? Is it a family drama? Unfortunately, it was trying to be all of those things at the same time. This led to each aspect of the tale getting a bit less attention than it should have received.
There were some coincidences that messed up the story a bit for me. (A character gets struck by lightning.) But far more problematic were a couple of scenes of sexual violence. There was an attempted molestation, domestic violence, and an allusion to a group rape that made this novel more than a young adult read (as it was labeled). Again, this to me was another example of the novel trying to be too many things at once. Yes, for the most part it is a young adult novel. But the sexual violence makes it too intense to be a young person’s book, while the rest of the book reads more like a children’s’ book.
There were admirable aspects to Mr. Samuel’s Penny, and I would very much like to read another book in the same vein. A tighter focus and a clearer scope would make such a novel a greater pleasure to read.
*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Regina