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Book cover of Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia

Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are off to Alabama to visit their grandmother, Big Ma, and her mother, Ma Charles. Across the way lives Ma Charles's half sister, Miss Trotter. The two half sisters haven't spoken in years. As Delphine hears about her family history, she uncovers the surprising truth that's been keeping the sisters apart. But when tragedy strikes, Delphine discovers that the bonds of family run deeper than she ever knew possible. (Source)

Both Ana and I reviewed One Crazy Summer, the first of Rita Williams-Garcia's books about the three Gaither sisters, their Pa, Grandma (Big Ma) and their activist mother. Join us as we (sadly) see the trilogy finish up and co-review the final book, Gone Crazy in Alabama.

Ana: When we discussed PS: Be Eleven last year, you said:
I think Pa and Miss Hendrix are going to play a major part if there's a third Gaither Sisters book. It feels like another complicated area of Delphine's life will be her relationship with Pa as she grows up and as she becomes more interested in feminism. How will she deal with her father's paternalistic views of women when she clearly adores him?

We now have our third book (hooray!); although the Alabama setting means Marva Hendrix was less present than we'd hoped, I was wondering: what did you make of the glimpses we did get of Pa's relationship with Ms Hendrix now that they're married, and of Delphine's possible feelings about it all?

Jodie: Well, Pa still seems like a good father, but not the kind of guy you want anyone to be married to. Not because of his personality but because of his values. Pa is a man of his time who believes that as the man of the house, and as the girls biological father, his word is final. In PS: Be Eleven, Marva continually challenged his ingrained sexist attitudes. In Gone Crazy in Alabama Delphine remembers how Marva used to storm out of the house when Pa did sexist things that upset her. That book showed how women's expectations of men were changing and how a woman like Marva could feel comfortable not being able to fill a traditional wifely role (as I remember it, she feels no shame about her inability to cook). Marva feels she can speak up and push for feminist space in a traditional marriage, even though it's damned hard, whereas in previous years Nzila feels she has to leave her marriage to have any chance of existing.

Of course, what the two women want out of life is very different. Nzila may have had to run from the institution of marriage and motherhood just as much as from the sexist expectations society put on her as a wife and mother (my favourite interpretation). Marva may fit more comfortably into marriage and motherhood but still be uncomfortable with the sexist culture surrounding those roles. Still, in PS: I Love You it feels like Marva is an embodiment of women who were grasping power and pushing back. It's a simplification to say she represents a female culture that was beginning to find its voice because there were so many different female stories, and so many instances of women expressing themselves and taking power throughout history, but I do think she symbolises this idea we have that the 60s was the start of a significant moment of liberation for American women.

So, I was sad to see that in this book Marva is made smaller and quieter by her impending motherhood. She no longer storms out on Pa and that's mostly because she doesn't have the energy to do so because she's pregnant. She seems to have particularly atrocious morning sickness. I appreciated Rita Williams-Garcia complicating her portrayal of women's lives yet again (society doesn't constantly level up from a place of greater liberation) but Marva is why I'm so not ready for this series to be over. I need to see what happens to her and instead we leave her struggling to hold her head up because she's sick all the time. What happens next? I'm really leery about the culture behind hetrosexual marriage so I'm pretty worried about her.

Ana: You make an excellent point about sheer exhaustion and morning sickness and how it can be hard to keep fighting when you're also dealing with that. As always, there's so much subtlety to how Rita Williams-Garcia portrays Marva; so much between the lines. Like you, I was left worried about her, and I would love a novel that explored the next chapter of her life. Like we said last time, Delphine's thoughts and feelings as she watched her father and stepmother's relationship develop would make for an incredibly rich story.

Basically I would be perfectly happy if this series never ended.

Jodie: Let's talk about Nzila/Cecile, the girls' biological mother. After the end of each book, even if she doesn't actually appear much, I end up having too many feelings about her and her appearance in Gone Crazy in Alabama cased a feelings overload. How do you feel about her at the end of the trilogy and did you enjoy the way Williams-Garcia characterised her relationship with the girl's Pa?

Ana: Ugh, I know exactly what you mean. ALL the feelings!

The way Nzila/Cecile is written is probably my favourite thing about these novels. It would have been so easy to default to a misogynist storyline where she's presented as a terrible person simply because leaving your children is the worst thing you can do if you're a woman. In fact, due to all the cultural baggage surrounding women and motherhood, all it would take would be not to counter that specifically and a lot of readers' assumptions would automatically take them there. At the same time, in the hands of a writer less brilliant than Rita Williams-Garcia, attempts to subvert these assumptions about women could easily have wound up throwing Delphine's legitimate hurt under the bus. I know this is pretty much what I said when we discussed PS: Be Eleven last year, but with each new novel I'm more and more in awe of how skillfully Williams-Garcia makes room for both truths. Cecile had to leave because that was essential to her survival; she's a human being and that's a legitimate choice for her to make. Things would not have gone well even if she'd stayed, as she wouldn't be able to give her children what they wanted and deserved when she constantly felt like she was drowning. Nevertheless, her sudden departure caused a lot of pain, especially to her oldest daughter Delphine. This is an insurmountable fact, and I love how the understanding we see growing between the two doesn't try to shift it out of the way — instead, it grows around it.

I thought one of the most moving scenes in Gone Crazy in Alabama was this, which takes place when Nzila/Cecile unexpectedly arrives at Ma Charles' house after being given the news of Vonetta's disappearance:

I heard her say to him, "I never meant to leave you." Something she'd never said to me or my sisters.

Then he spoke into her neck. "I know, sis."

"I just couldn't stay", she told him.

He said, "I know."

There are understandable reasons why Cecile can't bring herself to say these words to her daughters in the same way she says them to Uncle Darnell, and it's equally understandable why Delphine overhears them with a pang. Things are more complicated between them — yet the possibility is left in the air. Delphine is working her way towards understanding that knowing you "just couldn't stay" is something that can co-exist with genuine love and care, and readers are left thinking that perhaps this small interaction is something she'll be able to look back on in the future.

To answer the last bit of your question, I liked that Gone Crazy in Alabama brought a similar level of complexity to Cecile's relationship with Pa. After all these years, Delphine finally gets to see her parents together, and it dawns on her that the fact that things didn't work out between them doesn't mean they didn't care about each other:

I, for one, was glad I had seen my parents from the window and how they were together. I had to treasure it, because Pa and Cecile didn't look each other's way or say a word between them once we were all inside the house.

As you know, I'm a big fan of stories that acknowledge that relationships can remain meaningful and important even after they end, and what this novel does hints at that. However, it's not simply a matter of Cecile and Pa loving each other but things just not working out, because it's possible that the fact that Pa holds traditional sexist attitudes towards women's roles within marriage was a part of what made his first partner feel so stifled. All the complicated simultaneous truths! Why is Rita Williams-Garcia so brilliant?

What about you? Please share ALL your Nzila/Cecile feelings!

Jodie: I have too many feelings to really be coherent.

I agree with you - I love the way Williams-Garcia allows both Nzila and Delphine to have valid and conflicting feelings, but Nzila has been my heroine ever since the first book. In One Crazy Summer, we learnt that Pa used to paint over the poems she wrote on their wall. That's one hell of potent that Williams-Garcia deploys as it immediately invokes all the silenced female writers of history as well as all the women pushed into conventional domestic roles that pinched and poked them until they made themselves smaller. That detail about Nzila and Pa's history evoked a strong sense of feminist kinship, and I also loved how strong and smart and rooted the books make her. She's always focused and she always has an answer for her questioning daughter. In Gone Crazy in Alabama, she continues to be that solid, strong figure - the kind of woman who hears her daughter is missing and walks miles to reach the last place she was seen. She's kind of magnificent in this book.

I know prequel books don't always seem necessary but I would pay for a book that unravels Nzila's past and her marriage to Pa in detail. The suggestion and the mystery that pervades all three books is intentional and highly effective but I don't think that would be spoiled by a separate story.

Ana: Aw, yes, she was magnificent. And Pa painting over her poems is such a resonant image. I'd also really love a book that told Nzila/Cecile's story from the start.

Jodie: How do you feel about Vonetta's character progression and the end of her story?

Ana: First of all: I was SO GLAD she was okay! I don't think I could have coped otherwise. And it was good too to see Vonetta recover her attitude by the end of the novel, even though she was vulnerable and scared when she first came home from the hospital. Her trauma is of course completely understandable, but I would have hated to see a girl like Vonetta forever cowed by an accident. It was lovely to see her begin to bounce back.

The thing I was the most interested in was how Vonetta's character arc paralleled Delphine's. Delphine sees things in her middle sister's behaviour that she's oblivious to when it comes to her own, at least until circumstances make everything clearer. The understanding she gains from that insight then helps the three sisters work towards a new balance. For example, Delphine is protective of Fern and constantly points out Vonetta's unkindness to the youngest Gaither sister, yet she herself isn't always kind to Vonetta. Additionally, Vonetta's inability to forgive Uncle Darnell for stealing their Jackson Five concert money when he was struggling with addiction parallels Delphine's own difficulties in forgiving Cecile for her abandonment. In both cases, the people who were hurt the most directly have the most difficulty moving past that hurt — Delphine because she was the oldest and therefore the most aware of what was happening; Vonetta because she has a special relationship with Uncle Darnell and therefore felt particularly hurt by his actions. This is obvious enough to an outside observer, but far more difficult to grasp for the two girls when they're entangled in all these feelings.

I also enjoyed Vonetta and Delphine's dawning realisation that they're much more alike than they're ready to admit. Again, the ways in which they hurt each other parallel the way each of them causes hurt, and understanding this enables them not only to reign in their impulses but to be more compassionate in their dealings with each other. It's all done so well and so subtly, in Rita Williams-Garcia's customary brilliant way.

How did you feel about where these three novels took Vonetta and Delphine?

Jodie: So glad she was OK too! And also that Vonetta being whisked away and returned didn't end with Delphine becoming the best big sister evah even though she's really worried and guilty when Vonetta goes missing. However, I was also glad that the ending reminded us that they do love each other. I think Vonetta and Delphine have had the most openly conflicted relationship of all with the least amount of reconciliation across the three books so it almost feels fitting that such a big incident that makes both rethink their relationships happens right at the end of their stories.

In fact, I want to ask you a hypothetical, outside of the text, question. Vonetta and Delphine's relationship is shadowed by the prickly relationship between Ma Charles & Miss Trotter. Do you think the two girls will end up estranged and at loggerheads like the older ladies or do you think they'll be closer? I think they'll probably always have their issues, as siblings (and all human being with significant relationships) do. However, I can't imagine them ever completely out of each others lives. What do you think and what did you make of the fight between the older women?

Ana: I think they'd be closer too. I agree that they'd probably always have their conflicts (and yes, it's really nice how the story acknowledges that these can coexist with genuine love and care), but they also have the deeply ingrained intimacy of two sisters who grew up together and formed a close and solid emotional tie. They saw each other through so much — it would take a lot to undo that.

As for Ma Charles and Miss Trotter, I was interested in Williams-Garcia's exploration of non-stereotypical forms of conflict between women. As you were saying recently, this is as much a part of reality as conflict between people of any gender — it's just a shame that so many stories pretend a man must always be at the heart of it all. In this case we do have the involvement of the two half-sisters' father, Slim Jim Trotter, but it's still a deviation from the cliche of women fighting over straight romance.

Jodie: Yes I am so cool with women fighting - it happens all the time because *shocker* we're people. What I'm not into is media either gendering that conflict, and saying 'Oh they're in competition because they're women', or making that conflict all about a hot guy (which btw is also gendering the conflict because it plays into gendered notions about women and why they fight). And aside: while I believe you can set up conflict between women that takes place over a hot guy you've got to know exactly what you're doing because there's SO much history attached to that kind of conflict.

We could apply a form of The Bechdel Test and say that the conflict between Ma Charles and Miss Trotter is about a man, even if it's not romantic, and so centres a man at the heart of their stories. I think that there's a technical validity to that analysis but to just use that frame to look at the story would do it a disservice. It wouldn't be missing the point exactly - The Bechdel Test and similar analysis is designed to show just how hard it is for creators to shake the idea that a man should be at the centre of everything. However, just using this kind of analysis would flatten so much else about the two women's relationship, particularly the fact that the women's fight is about their own deeply personal pain.

Ana: Yes, exactly. It's a useful lens, but it doesn't tell the whole story. It was also interesting to see how Ma Charles and Miss Trotter were simultaneously a part of each other's lives and not. The little updates they sent each other via cousin Jimmy Trotter were prickly and affectionate at the same time, and even though they weren't raised together like Delphine and Vonetta they did still seemed to share a sense of familiarity, one that was different from the Gaither sisters' but just as central to their lives. I don't want to say, "Oh, they were sisters after all" and kind of romanticise blood ties in the process; obviously people who are related can be strangers or worse, and families of choice are just as real and solid as conventional families. Family ties, like anything else, are slowly built as you share your life with people day after day. So what I'd suggest is that, in the case of Ma Charles and Miss Trotter, their sense of having a shared hidden history seems to have been a big part of what brought them together and linked them to one another.

What did you make of the revelations about the Trotter/Gaither family in this book, and of the unexplored pockets of African-American history Rita Williams-Garcia brings to our attention?

Jodie: I wasn't really sure what to make of it because it's so far outside my frame of reference and because there's such a deliberate abrupt thematic about turn in that storyline. The whole series has been largely about choosing family. It starts with Delphine annoyed that she's always so responsible for her sisters but over the course of three books, even though in one way she's anchored to much of her family practically because she's a kid and she lives with them, she actively chooses to be close to each member of her family in a different way. Ma Charles and Miss Trotter may have a stormy relationship but they're also very in control of their relationship. So, when Williams-Garcia introduces a "relation", the racist white Sheriff, the family can't choose to embrace or reject it contrasts so strongly with the heart of the rest of the trilogy. It brings the racism in the South right into the most personal of spaces - the family home.

And setting that storyline in the 60s, rather than in a time where slavery still exists, shows how what many white people would like to think of as an issue consigned to history continues to have consequences on and on. It reminded me a little bit of watching That Gal...Who Was In That Thing recently and seeing L. Scott Caldwell talk about growing up with segregation.

Ana: Yes, absolutely. I was also interested in the parts about Slim Jim Trotter's relationship with the Creek and all the historical information about the Creek freedman. I haven't done a lot of reading about what Williams-Garcia calls in the Author's Note the "complex and shared history" of African-Americans and Native Americans and I would love to get my hands on some of the books she recommends.

Jodie: Before we finish I'd like to talk about Delphine's journey through the series and ask you to talk a little bit about what makes her such an interesting character overall.

Ana: To me, part of it is what I highlighted above when comparing her story arc with Vonetta's: Delphine is allowed a great degree of complexity, and that made me like her straight away. She's allowed to be both generous and unfair, to be right and to be wrong, to look after her sisters and to be a kid who gets sucked into small sibling rivalries. She's allowed her hurt and her need for connection with her mother; her enormous love and admiration for her stepmother and her complicated feelings about life changes. In short, she's allowed to be a person, with all the complications and occasional contradictions that entails.

I also love the fact that over the course of the three books, we watch her develop a political consciousness: her experiences with her mother and the Black Panthers, meeting her teacher Mr Mwila and getting to know Marva Hendrix, trying to read Things Fall Apart, exchanging letters with her Cecile, seeing Alabama with new eyes after her time in California: these are all things that leave her mark on Delphine, and which will surely continue to influence her as she accumulates life experiences and contextualises them in new ways.

What about you? What do you think makes Delphine so interesting?

Jodie: Pretty much what you said. I like that she's allowed to change but that change doesn't involve total compromise. Her story is not generally one of a kid learning they were wrong and being forced to change how they see the world but of a kid learning new things that change how they choose to see the world. Delphine learns new things about Nzila that make her mother sympathetic to the audience but at the end of the story she still has the option to reject her. In kind, she learns new things about her father that make him a stressful figure for the audience but she still has the option to love him. I liked that her development never felt forced but that she did change throughout the trilogy.

Anything else you want to mention (apart from pleading with Rita Williams-Garcia to bring us more stories from this world)?

Ana:Ha! That, always.

But also, I wanted to talk a bit about something I think Rita Williams-Garcia did masterfully in this novel. I don't know if I just see this theme everywhere because it's been on my mind so much, but I think Gone Crazy in Alabama once again draws attention to how important social context is when it comes to determining how much individuals are able to risk for their principles. When Big Ma and Cousin Jimmy Trotter shush the Gaither sisters' talk of black liberation, they're not displaying political complacency; instead, they're acting because they know the exact cost of open defiance in their particular time and place. The novel is full of subtle yet chilling reminders that Pa's concern and his talk of not wanting to see his daughters go back home "in a pine box" is not just overprotectiveness: he knows, as the rest of the family knows, that black children could die in Ku Klux Klan country. This scene, for example, hit me really hard:

I might as well be twenty-one and not twelve. In my bones I knew I had outgrown my fear of Big Ma and that there was nothing she could do to me, but I stepped away from the window. I was both afraid of the Klan and fascinated by them. They weren't in a newspaper article or on the evening news; they were here. I felt them pounding their horses' hooves into our land, and saw them riding past the fields and into the pines. The way Caleb sang, loud and sad, I couldn't tell if he was baying at them or if he wanted to be with them. It was a long, sad song.

"Jimmy Trotter." Ma Charles' voice had lost its cackling. "Don't worry about your great-granny. None of this is new to her. She knows what to do. She'll be alright."


There was no sympathy for me. Big Ma scolded, "Delphine. I can't understand why you running to that window, looking for trouble. I don't care what kind of power they're shouting about in Oakland and in Brooklyn. You don't know nothing about nothing down here."

Later on, it's revealed that the people behind the masks are people Delphine's family knows — people they have always known. You need solid support structures to survive that, let alone defy it, and of course you must survive before you can organise and resist. Once again, Williams-Garcia reminds us of how incomplete and potentially reductive the personal bravery narrative can be.

Any final thoughts from you?

Jodie: Just that I can't wait to see what Rita Williams-Garcia is going to write next. You always see book news before me so make sure to keep me up to date!

Supplemental Material

Ana reviews One Crazy Summer
Jodie reviews One Crazy Summer
The Book Smugglers review One Crazy Summer
The Slatebreakers review One Crazy Summer
Maureen reviews One Crazy Summer
Jodie and Ana co-review PS. Be Eleven
The Book Smugglers review PS. Be Eleven
The Book Smugglers review Gone Crazy in Alabama
Brandy reviews Gone Crazy in Alabama

Date: 2015-08-03 05:28 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Y'all are as awesome and persuasive as ever! Next time I'm at the library I'll see if I can get all three books and read them all together. "Complicated simultaneous truths" are one of my favorite things that fiction can do.

Date: 2015-08-03 05:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] readingtheend.pip.verisignlabs.com
Argh, sorry, that last comment was me! Hi!

Date: 2015-08-04 01:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] necromancyneverpays.wordpress.com
These do sound interesting. I like your non-American perspective. Not sure I agree that there are circumstances in which it's brave for a mother to leave her children. Seems like that's privileging one's own survival over the survival of one's offspring.


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