In Mandy Mikulencak’s second published novel, The Last Suppers, the author transports readers back to a time of suppressed turmoil and crushing deprivation.
It is 1950s Louisiana, beyond hot and humid in the kitchen of Greenmount Penitentiary, the undisputed domain of Ginny Polk.
The opening of The Last Suppers takes place in the Waiting Room, where prisoners who will be executed stay. The prisoner is supposed to be “enjoying” his final meal before dying. It is a brief introduction into a world where casual cruelty and violence are imposed on the hapless prisoners. Mikulencak creates a disturbing world that most readers would be hard-pressed to fathom. She uses all the senses to make readers feel the physical and emotional oppression of this place.
The kitchen, however, is home to a young woman named Ginny, who thrives on the challenge of making good food from the most paltry of ingredients. Her personal mission is to make a special last meal for inmates who are being put to death. Her partner, who helps run the kitchen, is Dot, whom she hired only five years before, and has become like a mother to her. Dot is no shrinking violet, and she does her best to give Ginny a hard time. She playfully attacks Ginny’s attire and her relationship with the prison’s warden, Roscoe Simms, a man 20 years her senior who was her father’s best friend.
As the story begins, Ginny is frustrated by Sam Le Boux, her 18th death row prisoner, who has no desire for a last meal. Ginny seems to understand the power of food – how it represents and brings back memories of good times from one’s past. She feels obligated to help ease these prisoners on the way, with a little comfort, despite their crimes.
A possible cause of her compulsion could be the fact that she was made by her mother at the young age of 8 to witness the execution of the man who killed her father, who was a prison guard.
Against everybody’s wishes, Ginny pursues her mission by visiting Sam’s family. She then proceeds to do what she has always done, but unwittingly sets events in motion that unleashes family secrets with results no one could have known to disastrous effect.
Mikulencak has given readers wonderfully realized characters who entertain, inform and capture readers’ interest and emotions. The setting and timing of this story exposes readers to issues that many may hope have been left long in our past – race, poverty, justice and the ever-present controversial issue of the death penalty. Mikulencak does not lecture or promote these concerns, but instead lets the characters move the story, and also the readers.
The Last Suppers is a fascinating and absorbing read, one that might seem far-fetched to today’s millennials, but it would certainly show them what a world of prejudice and unfettered power looks like.
The book should appeal to many readers, especially those who love strong characters, unusual experiences and solid and surprising drama with a hint of tasty, soulful Southern cooking – there are even authentic old recipes included at the end.
Leslie Doran is a retired teacher, freelance writer and former New Mexican who claims Durango as her forever home.