Book Review – One Crazy Summer

One Crazy Summer (Gaither Sisters, #1)One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like Rebecca Stead, Rita Williams-Garcia has a natural feel for how kids think, feel, rationalize, and worry. This story, told in first-person by 11-year-old Delphine, tells a politically charged tale in highly personal terms. That’s what attracted me to it, and the fact that I seem to be continually seeking books and media that I’d want my hypothetical children to read, to be be sensitive, informed, and politically aware.

Delphine and her younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, travel to Oakland for a month in 1968, to reconnect with their estranged mother Cecile (who goes by Nzila now). Within a few short pages, we understand Delphine’s position, a girl who has taken on responsibilities far beyond her years because of one parent’s absence. Vonetta is a performer who craves attention. Fern is vulnerable and innocent. Delphine shepherds both through social and emotional minefields — little realizing how much she also could use some love and guidance.

This would be enough for many a juvenile novel, but Williams-Garcia foregrounds this family drama against the broad backdrop of social justice. Almost by osmosis, the story introduces the reader to the racial and sexual politics of the time, to the Black Panthers, and the complicated social landscape that these young African American girls navigate. Through Delphine’s eyes, we learn different strategies for surviving a racist society. Back in Brooklyn, the girls’ grandmother Big Ma, who raised them with their father after Cecile left, takes an approach of accommodation and assimilation: the girls must always be on their best behavior, polite and unobtrusive, especially in the presence of white people. The Panthers and Cecile, however, are assertive. At the Panthers’ freedom school, children are taught their civil rights — lessons we hardly think are affecting cautious Delphine until she stands up to a shopkeeper who assumes the girls are thieves. Overall, the book deftly illustrates subtle shifts in Delphine, as she learns about and tries out other points of view and ideologies, coming closer to her Panther teachers Sister Mukumbu and Sister Pat.

Cecile, however, is the center of the novel as she is the central focus of the girls’ trip — and indeed, as her absence has been the central influence on much of the girls’ lives and experience. For most of the story, she is as mysterious to us as she is to her daughters. Why did this woman abandon her children? Is she just selfish, as Big Ma maintains? Slowly, we gain insight. After Delphine insists that they cannot eat Chinese take-out for another night and Delphine will cook for her sisters, Cecile relents and allows Delphine inside the kitchen, which she uses as a work space for her printing press. Here, Cecile comments that they have been fighting for freedom, while Delphine seems eager to put on a yoke again. In that simple line, we begin to grasp Cecile’s longing for self-determination in all ways, for herself as well as her daughters — but, failing her daughters, she’ll take it for herself. Later, when Cecile reveals more about her youth, we understand her even better. Here is a biological mother who isn’t willing to sacrifice all for her children. And, in the character of Delphine, we’re asked to reconcile our feelings for her with support for sexual equality as well as racial. It’s a delicate issue for any author to raise, let alone in a story for young readers, and Garcia-Williams handles it with great humanity. Cecile, a poet whose rejection of any servile position also led her to reject family responsibilities, is the counterpoint to Delphine, who up until now has accepted both her grandmother’s model of black womanhood and family ties with an almost Christ-like submission. Without simplifying the issues, the evolution of Cecile and Delphine’s relationship over the novel brings both closer to a place where responsibility to other people does not have to mean accepting a socially inferior position.

Did I mention the book is funny? While never shying away from the seriousness of the Panthers, racial injustice, and police repression, the characters are real people who do real and ridiculous things. It’s a pleasure to read. Much of the enjoyment comes from the kids’ imperfect understanding of Panther ideals, and the way Delphine comes to turn resistance techniques against the reigning power in her life — her mother. The story also gives us insight into the less dramatic moments of organizing and social movements: cooking free meals, folding newspapers, posting flyers. And the small moments that build relationships and seed political consciousness, like when “Mean Lady” Ming, who owns the Chinese take-out, turns out not to be so mean, but just a person trying to survive in an economically depressed neighborhood. A person not without compassion.

Highly recommended, for kids and adults.

View all my reviews

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