Wednesday, June 17, 2015

June Book Review Club: One Crazy Summer

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@Barrie Summy

The only thing crazy about summer this year is how long it's taken to arrive, at least here in Maine. Ah, but 1968--that was a summer. Reading about it has eased the wait. 

Speaking of summer, the Book Review Club is taking a couple of months off. See you in September, and have a sane one. (Unless you'd prefer otherwise.)

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By Rita Williams-Garcia
Harper Collins/Amistad, 2010

The year after it came out, ONE CRAZY SUMMER won a National Book Award Nomination and three of the American Library Association’s top awards: A Newbery Honor, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

This gives rise to two questions: 1. Is the book worth all the hoopla? And 2. When did my teen years turn into historical fiction?

Answers: Yes, and I’m going back to bed now.

When I was a kid in New England, somebody said “Black Panthers” and you thought of a raised fist. In recent years, starting (for me) with Kekla Magoon’s THE ROCK AND THE RIVER, the Panthers have gotten more credit for the community service work that went hand-in-hand with their political activism. ONE CRAZY SUMMER is welcome in that respect, but it’s a gem because of its story and its richly varied cast of characters.

Our narrator, eleven-year-old Delphine Gaither, is the oldest of three girls. She’s the only one who has even hazy memories of their mother, Cecile, who walked out on her Brooklyn, NY, family just after the birth of Fern, now seven, and when nine-year-old Vonetta was a toddler. Supposedly, Cecile was upset that she wasn’t allowed to name Fern “Afua”—at least, that’s the family mythology.

Names are important in this book. Delphine is disturbed that she doesn’t really know where hers came from. Her story makes it clear that you can always choose your own.

In the summer of 1968, over his live-in mother’s objections, Delphine’s father decides that his three girls should get to know their mother, a poet who now lives in Oakland, CA. Mindful of her grandmother’s strictures, Delphine does her best to make sure her young sisters behave well on the plane—white territory—lest they disgrace their entire race.

Cecile, it turns out, has no desire to get to know her daughters and certainly no desire to behave well. Grudgingly leading them from the airport with her “man-sized strides,” she takes them home to an empty house whose kitchen is off limits to everyone except her. Sent out to buy Chinese take-out, the kids eat on the floor and next morning are bundled out the door to find their own way to the Black Panthers’ community center, where they and other kids get fed and learn about the Panthers’ philosophy.

Delphine is her mother’s match. One day, worried about her sisters’ health, she uses the take-out money to buy chicken and vegetables, and barges into her mother’s kitchen to make a real dinner. She finds a kitchen table covered with printing equipment—Cecile, known to the Panthers as “Nzila,” is their printer as well as a poet. The police have their eye on her, and the situation is about to become even more uneasy for the three girls.

Delphine is an observant, sometimes lyrical yet cool-eyed narrator, only occasionally losing her sang-froid. She has all a young girl’s preoccupations and fears—even a charming little crush—and doesn’t completely understand everything she’s told. Her rendition of her little sisters is a wonderful meld of annoyance, love, and insight—those two little girls are lucky to have her looking out for them.

We only learn at the end of the book how much Delphine has yearned for the mother whose toughness she inherited.

Cecile is not a nice mother, and if you’re hoping she becomes one you should read something else. She’s tough for good reason, and she had good reasons for leaving her family, although a nice mother might have ignored them. Her daughters, especially Delphine, have not fallen far from the tree—each has her own version of Cecile’s stiff back. And yet by the end of the story they begin to look into one another’s eyes. And that’s more than enough.

The one bumpy spot (for me) is the moment when seven-year-old Fern takes the mike at a “free Huey Newton” rally to recite a poem she wrote outing Crazy Kelvin, an unpleasant Panther she saw hobnobbing with the police. I had trouble believing a seven-year-old would have that kind of political insight, although maybe I just don’t hang around enough seven-year-olds who’ve spent weeks being schooled in politics.

I did love the poem, though. Here’s my favorite line: “The policeman says, ‘Good puppy.’/Crazy Kelvin says ‘Arf. Arf.’”

ONE CRAZY SUMMER now has two much-celebrated sequels: P.S. BE ELEVEN (2013) and GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA (2015). I can’t wait to catch up with the Gaither girls.

Dear FCC: I got sick of not having read this book. So I bought it. Nobody cares.