Water and Blood – Family Ties Strengthen “That Pinson Girl” by Gerry Wilson

by Allie Coker

That Pinson Girl is a novel about Leona Pinson—but it’s also about her interjecting aunt Sally, her emotionally absent mother Rose, her possibly-murdered father Herbert, her cruel brother Raymond, and her devoted friend and half-uncle Luther Biggs, whose mother was a slave of Leona’s grandfather.

That Pinson Girl and author Gerry Wilson

Water and Blood

We meet 16-year-old Leona as she’s bringing her baby, Isaiah, into the world. She has sworn herself to secrecy regarding the father of the child, not even allowing herself to divulge his identity to her best friend, Bertie. Sally, who is the sister of Leona’s father, Herbert, has come to live with the family since the discovery of his dead body in the woods. Rose’s mother, while still alive, has been distant from her children for most of their lives, preferring Leona’s mean and harmful brother, Raymond, when she does show any affection. 

Raymond, in turn, is violent and menacing towards animals and humans alike. He was made to leave the household after Luther and Herbert discovered him trying to force himself on Leona, but Raymond has returned to claim the Pinson homestead after the death of his father. Luther Biggs, Herbert’s half-brother, has always worked for and looked after the Pinson family. Though he had a wife, Varna, and two children, Alma who lives in Atlanta and Jesse who is 15 and has developmental challenges, Luther’s greatest dedication goes into looking after Leona. After Herbert’s death, he acts as the only remaining family member Leona trusts and loves. 


Mudslinging in Mississippi

Leona’s strained existence started with her father’s death and, with the exception of briefly being courted by Walker Broom prior to his entering the war efforts, her situation does not improve. Bertie, Sally, and Leona attempt to take the young children in their families to the circus as a fun reprieve to their daily difficulties, but Leona finds it to be shabby and disappointing in comparison to her childhood recollection. When recounting to Bertie how sad it seemed, she says, “Maybe it’s not the circus…Maybe it’s us.”

Gerry Wilson masterfully crafts a frisson of underlying tension throughout the book which kept me reading. Other than being a single mother, Leona’s worries are numerous—does Walker ever think of her? Will the flu ravage her family the way it did Bertie’s? Will Raymond, who rides around torching property and scaring locals, turn his out of control drinking and temper against her once again? When Walker returns from the war with a bride and Luther’s son physically defends himself against Ray’s threats and family defamation, the situation in Sully, Mississippi becomes even graver.

Leona also finds that her mother recorded and then blotted out the name of a potential third child, born after Leona, who could be the source of Rose’s depression and isolation for so many years. 

Despite the casualties of WWI and the heavy losses of the 1918 flu epidemic, gossip remained alive and well in Sully, Mississippi. Town stares and whispers escalate from guessing at Isaiah Pinson’s paternity to talk of the “mischief” incurred by a band of Klan-loving men. As the stakes increase throughout the book, the pile of accusations and rumors mount until one character is on death’s door literally face down in the mud.


The World Don’t Owe You Nothin’: Grief and Devastation

Many of the characters in this narrative feel they are owed something from the world—be it love or land—and have allowed their natures to turn bitter when they do not receive it. Meanwhile, their mismanaged efforts to “protect” others sour at every intersection because they are ultimately trying to protect themselves. Sally, romantically spurned all her life due to dwarfism, withholds Walker’s last communication to Leona prior to him leaving for war. Walker hides his past with Leona from his new wife, Edith, and tells her they are just acquaintances while Rose and Luther both harbor a secret that permanently altered the Pinson and Biggs households.

Leona may wish to protect the identity of her lover knowing that Raymond will want to annihilate him for laying hands on his sister, one of many acts of searing paternalism and hypocrisy so deftly navigated throughout the book. Even the best-intentioned characters cannot escape the pitfalls of their decisions. Leona, trusting in the safety of the law, leads Luther and Jesse to reckon with the sheriff’s office (with ruinous consequences) after Jesse’s altercation with Raymond.

Many southern trademarks and talismans make an appearance in Wilson’s story, such as the family bible, the watches that belonged to Rose and Herbert Pinson, the lamp Luther gives Leona as a child, as well as a precious locket, and meaningful letters and photos. Not only do these items lend a sense of realism to the story, but they help make the reader feel embedded in the town of Sully and connected to the characters on an intimate level. Their pain becomes our pain. Their wishes become our wishes.

Wilson expertly presents a devastating landscape that left me crying, hoping, and holding my breath for answers as she unravels each mystery at an organic pace. I highly recommend That Pinson Girl for its deep exploration of different versions of loss—death, grief, dysfunction, sense of purpose— as well as its precise prose. It is especially recommended for readers of historical southern fiction. 

~ Allie Coker


About Gerry Wilson, Author of That Pinson Girl

Gerry Wilson author

A seventh-generation Mississippian and a child of the hill country she writes about in That Pinson Girl, Gerry Wilson came of age during the turbulent civil rights era. Her story collection, Cross-currents and Other Stories, was nominated for the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Fiction Award. Gerry is a recipient of a Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship. Her stories have appeared in numerous journals. That Pinson Girl is her first novel.

You can find and follow Gerry Wilson on her website, and on X (formerly Twitter).

About Allie Coker, the Reviewer

Allie Coker

Allie Coker lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She holds a BA in English from Davidson College and an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Her novella, The Last Resort, was published in 2021. 

You can find and follow Allie Coker on Facebook, Instagram, and on LinkedIn

Titles by Allie Coker


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That Pinson Girl
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