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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.

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‘One Crazy Summer’ is a simple novel. Rita Williams-Garcia’s story is written in the voice of an uncomplicated, but smart child narrator. It is easy to read, unconcerned with dazzling readers with complex literary techniques.

I expected ‘One Crazy Summer’ to be an interesting way to pass a few hours and a quick read. It was all of those things, but it was also so much more satisfying than those phrases imply. It’s been ages since I finished such an easy to read book, without the feeling of disappointment that comes from having read an average, or forgettable novel. It’s been a while since I’ve been so swept away by a story told using an ordinary narrative voice, without any added literary trickery1.

Delphine, Vonetta and Fern are sent to spend the summer in Oakland with their estranged mother, Cecile, who left just after Fern was born. When the girls arrive it doesn’t take long for them to decide that Cecile is out of her mind crazy. She lives in a bizarre green stuccoed house, with a palm tree outside. She’s changed her name to Nzilla, which confuses Delphine because, in her eyes:

‘A name is important. It isn’t something you drop in the litter basket or on the ground. Your name is how people know you. The very mention of your name makes a picture spring to mind, whether it’s a picture of clashing fists or a mighty mountain that can’t be knocked down. Your name is who you are and how you’re known even when you do something great or something dumb.’

Cecile (as Delphine insists on calling her, despite this new name2) doesn’t cook like a regular mother; she shows no interest in her three children and is prone to mumbling angrily under her breath. When her daughters first arrive she sends the girls (Delphine is the oldest at twelve) through the unfamiliar streets by themselves in the dark to pick up take away food. The next morning she all but kicks them out of the house, so they can get a free breakfast from the People’s Centre, run by the Black Panthers and tells them not to come back until late evening. Cecile is not the mother they’ve all been hoping for; initially she’s even surpasses Delphine’s low expectations.

And Delphine feels she has every right to be cynical about what their mother can possibly offer them. Cecile’s absence has forced Delphine into a mature role at an early age. She spends a lot of time looking after her two sisters and their summer trip at first seems to provide no respite from that role. Vonetta has to be kept in line, fights have to be mediated and Delphine is soon in charge of the cooking after her sisters get sick from too much take away food. Being given such responsibility, apparently by default as the eldest, has given her the (substantiated) idea that she must remain the sensible, diplomatic sister to guide Vonetta and Fern through life, even though she’s only twelve years old herself. It’s unsurprising that Delphine’s narration is full of resentment for Cecile, which she unhealthily suppresses in a surprisingly accomplished, passive aggressive way for someone her age.

As the narrator of ‘One Crazy Summer’, Delphine’s negative feelings about Cecile could easily have made the book a reinforcement of society’s easy, anti-feminist ideas about women who leave their children and don’t appear to love their kids ‘as a mother should’. There’s no doubt that Delphine’s description of Cecile includes many negative comments, but Williams-Garcia also has her character include short memories from Delphine’s childhood to illustrate the restrictions placed on Cecile during her marriage. In one memory Delphine sees the walls of their house being painted over by her Papa. The reader previously learnt that the walls were covered in Cecile’s poetry. Delphine also recalls other moments, like her Papa’s call for ‘ “No more of these made up, different names.” ‘ when Cecile was deciding what to call her third daughter. These incidents show the reader that Cecile may have been battling against repressive forces at home and later her relationship with Delphine’s father is explained a little more, giving the reader insight into why a mother might leave her children, to help herself. Although the reader never fully knows why Cecile left her family it is clear that a clash between her creative, modern personality (she is a poet and a feminist who works with the Black Panthers) and her husband’s desire for her to be a normal mother had something to do with her departure when Fern was tiny.

As Delphine is so young and doesn’t fully understand the significance of the events that she remembers she can still be written as a daughter who feels uncompromising angry at a missing mother, without losing the reader’s sympathy. Delphine could have, like so many other young adult characters, been pushed into a place of false reconciliation, where she had to acknowledge the total validity of Cecile’s feelings and come to feel her own emotions were invalid when judged against issues of wider importance. What so impressed me about ‘One Crazy Summer’ was how skilfully it balanced the need to express Cecile’s valid reasons for leaving her family to the reader, as well as Delphine’s valid sadness at losing a mother, without making either person’s priorities feel less important than the other. I think Angie sums up why the inclusion of this kind of mother/daughter relationship is so interesting when she says:

‘I have certainly never read a children’s book that has a mother like Sister Nzilla – a mother who is neither a villain or a redeemed heroine, but who is person, on her own terms, struggling to find out what it means to be a mother and a free person.’3

The partial reconciliation the two achieve by the end of the book felt realistic, based on the hurts that both of them had experienced. There are no tearful breakdowns in this book, that require one character to reject the reality of their emotional state, but both characters are allowed to come to an understanding of each other, without either being requiring to fold rather than compromise. Instead, a quiet bond grows between Delphine and Cecile towards the end of the novel and their last conversation is a measured discussion about real things. I liked it so much for refusing to ladle on the dramatics.

I was especially interested in the impact of one event that contains no explicit blame (Cecile isn’t even present) but manages to emphasise just what Delphine has lost, by taking on the role of most responsible sister. A trip on a new friends go-cart, allows her to release her childish side as she flies free screaming and laughing downhill:

‘As the go-kart went faster, I felt the rumbling of the wheels hitting the concrete underneath me. I screamed. So loud I startled myself. I had never heard myself scream. Screamed from the top of my lungs, from the pit of my heart. Screamed like I was snaking and falling. Screamed and hiccuped and laughed like my sisters. Like I was having the time of my life, flying down that glorious hill.’

The subtlety of ‘One Crazy Summer’ is, I think, its greatest strength. It’s small details like this moment of fun and the memories I mentioned, that Delphine has about Cecile, that build up into a picture explaining how people feel, and what they’ve faced. These moments are much more effective than a big speech about feminism, or a row about Delphine’s lost years of being a kid. The reader is allowed to make the connection between Cecile’s idea that Delphine could stand to be more selfish and the positive aspects of selfishness, on their own.

There’s a lot more going on in this small novel than the one significant relationship I’ve talked about. The girls get lessons in civil rights, they fight, go on a sightseeing trip and there’s a bit of drama at the end with a police informant at a protest rally. I’ve focused on Delphine and Nzilla because I think they’re the core that the rest of the novel revolves around, but I wonder which part of this novel others were most interested in. Care to share?

Thanks so much to Ana from The Book Smugglers for giving me a copy of this book.

1Unrelated moan: Am I alone in finding a whole range of lauded, but easily accessible adult fiction kind of uninspiring right now? I mean, these books are a fine way to pass a lazy Sunday, but around 250 pages in they start to make me feel sluggish, like I’ve eaten too much roast dinner. When I get to the end I feel like I have very little to say about them.

2 That sets her at odds with her mother who says:‘ “It’s my name. My self. I can name my self. And if I’m not the one I was but am now a new self, why would I call myself by an old name?” ’ There’s quite a bit about the importance of names, placed subtly here and there in this novel, which should delight fantasy fans who are into understanding the power of naming.

3Her blog ‘Fat Girl, Reading’ seems to have unfortunately disappeared while I wasn’t checking blogs : ( (Edit - No it hadn't, thanks to Renay for checking)

Other Reviews

The Book Smugglers
Reading in Color
Colour Online
Fat Girl, Reading

Bonus: Zetta Elliot posted a series of interview questions with Rita Williams Garcia about ‘One Crazy Summer’ last year. Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 are available on her blog.


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