by Rita Williams-Garcia
First sentence: “Good thing the plane had seat belts and we’d been strapped in tight before takeoff.”
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This book is many things. It’s a picture of Oakland in 1968, though it’s not as turbulent as I expected it to be. It’s a picture of an independent girl who looks after her younger sisters thrust into a new environment. It’s a picture of a neglectful artist mom (why are all the neglectful moms artists? Are all artists naturally flaky?) learning to accept and love her children again? It’s a picture of the clash between southern African-American mannerisms (pre-civil rights, of course) and more progressive, more earthy west coast sentiments.
It’s all of these things, and which you would think would overwhelm a 215 page book. But, through Williams-Garcia’s writing and plotting, she makes it all work. Delphine, our eleven-year-old main character, has it all together: she keeps an eye on her sisters, Vonetta and Fern; she’s responsible, dependable, if a bit plain. And so when her Pa decides to send them clear across the country to Oakland to see their mother who left when Fern was a baby, she figures it’s more of the same. And, for a while it is. Their mother isn’t terribly happy to see them — though she did pick them up at the airport, which must count for something — and sends them off every morning to a summer camp run by the Black Panthers. It’s there that Delphine — and Vonetta and Fern, to a smaller extent — learn about the horrid things that have been happening to their people, and about how the traditions that Big Ma (who’s from Alabama) have been teaching them, are keeping them from reaching their full potential.
It’s a good, solid book, for the most part. There are some interesting questions raised about place and race and belonging. But I didn’t absolutely love the book. Perhaps it has something to do with my bias against crazy/neglectful mothers (though I didn’t mind the mother in Rocky Road; perhaps that has something to do with her medical diagnosis?). Perhaps it was that I didn’t think there was enough growth portrayed to justify the hopeful ending. That may just be me wanting more from a middle grade book. Or it may be the opposite: there wasn’t enough of a happy ending to suit me; it almost felt like they were spinning in the same place all summer. The growth that does occur is very, very subtle. I sit and think about it, and the pieces fall together… and yet there seems something a bit off. Nothing earth-shattering: it’s definitely a good book,and there’s definitely lots to talk and think about.
It’s just not as great as I was hoping it would be.
(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)