Beyond FICTION: ORANGE MINT AND HONEY by Carleen Brice
The room was full of Denver-area book lovers, literary types—many of whom are associated with Lighthouse Writers, where Carleen is a board member—and friends and family members eager to cheer Carleen on. While those in the crowd who’ve yet to read her novel quickly learned they were in for a treat, those of us who’d already read it knew very well that the publication of Orange Mint and Honey was especially worth celebrating.
A Target pick and an Essence magazine book club selection, Orange Mint and Honey incorporates layers of bittersweet emotions into a wonderfully readable and often humorous story. Music plays a huge role, as does the Denver setting, all aspects of Carleen’s life that contribute to the book’s comforting, grounded tone. Shay, the main character, is nothing if not blunt. Having raised herself due to her mother’s once-rampant alcoholism, Shay nearly reaches the pinnacle of years of struggle and strife—the completion of her graduate degree—when she finds she simply cannot go on. A surprise “visit” from the late great jazz singer Nina Simone compels Shay to return home to Denver where her seemingly re-made, AA-saved mother welcomes her with open arms…and a new little half-sister.
The twists and turns that Shay’s few months with the family she’s not even sure she wants in a “home” she hesitates to claim drive the plot and the growing understanding of how Shay is forced to reconcile her tragic childhood with the potential promise of her future. This story is not all rosy and the results of an ongoing, immense struggle to overcome years of abandonment and neglect are not immediately evident. Surprises abound with the introduction of every new character and their effect on Shay, who until now has focused every ounce of energy on school, the one place she’d always known—until recently, anyway—she not only could excel, but could successfully hide her worst secrets—and fears.
While the impact of alcoholism on individuals and families resonates through the pages of Orange Mint and Honey, so does the simple act of gardening and the related tools of survival Shay’s mother shares. Nona Dixon senses her daughters’ frustrations as she battles against the need to forgive in the face of so much that truly needs forgiving, to “let go and let God,” to not only take things one day at a time but to cherish every moment. And she doesn’t hesitate to be just as direct as her daughter about necessary next steps, even when it’s evident Shay doesn’t want to listen.
I once gave my mother, an avid gardener, a little plaque that reads “Love always grew in my mother’s garden.” My maternal grandmother, also a gardener, died of cancer when my mom was a young girl, so I knew this gift would be appreciated not only as a tribute from a daughter, but as a sweet reminder of a beloved mother. I thought of this gardening/mothering statement often while reading Orange Mint and Honey. Not only does Shay learn of her mother’s love for her, she comes to realize that her mother, while imperfect, appreciates the impact of her unconditional love on every person in her life who needs her. While this outpouring of effort and emotion that young Shay once assumed did not even exist within her mother’s heart shocks and at times dismays her, Shay is forced to understand that it does her mother just as much good to be needed as it does for her to aid those in need. But new love, even between a parent and child, takes time, and Carleen masterfully takes her time illustrating this simple fact as her story unfolds. Consider this exchange, initiated by Shay:
“How did you come up with Glory for my middle name?”
“You don’t remember?”
“About morning glories…?”
I stared blankly.
“Morning glories were my father’s favorite flower. He used to say, ‘Glories thrive in the worst possible soil and face the day with a smile every morning. What’s not to love?’”
That was me. I didn’t exactly face each day with a smile, but I was still here. I had survived.
“You don’t remember that story?”
“You never told me that.”
“Oh, I did too! Don’t you have any good memories of me?”
One of Carleen’s most memorable statements last night (besides her reference to two different characters who represent “two sides of the same character” which pretty much blew me away) was her reference to the write-up her book received in the March issue of Essence magazine. The full-page feature refers to Shay as a “supersmart grad student.”
“I was so happy for her,” Carleen said. “They called her smart and I thought, Shay would just love that!”
Shay is not only book-smart, she’s wise beyond her years (a typical trait, I believe, of adult children of alcoholics), yet the obstacles she faces—from the present as well as the past—often seem insurmountable. Her ability to keep plugging through it all ultimately leads her to see past her own scars to realize and appreciate the many challenges faced by others. Only through this realization does she allow herself to relax, to relish the sweetness of simple pleasures despite the bitterness that often accompanies them, to love herself despite her perceived weaknesses and handicaps, to appreciate her unique style of gracing the world in which she lives and the lives of those who love her.