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one crazy summer

10 march 2014

Rita Williams-Garcia's novel One Crazy Summer won so many awards that you can barely see the cover illustration for all the stickers. It was a finalist for the National Book Award, and won a Newbery Honor. It also grabbed two firsts: the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction and the Coretta Scott King Book Award for best author.

It's only the O'Dell Award that makes me somewhat uneasy. Our narrator Delphine is 11 in the summer of 1968, which means that she would have been in my sixth-grade class that year – that is, if she'd lived in South Jersey. And been real.

In other words, I'm history. Even the late waves of the Baby Boom now belong to the ages. Delphine knows many of the same songs I sung, watches all my favorite TV shows, and has a similar sense of current events. Of course, the Venn diagram of her imagined life and my real one isn't a perfect overlap. She's black and bicoastal where I was white of Midwestern origin, and she lives closer to the news I was watching on TV back in New Jersey than I ever did.

Delphine and her two younger sisters Vonetta and Fern fly from New York to Oakland to meet their mother. Delphine is the only one of the girls who remembers much about Cecile, who abandoned them when Fern was a baby, moved to the Coast, and now prints broadsheets of her poems in the otherwise unused kitchen of her house – poems that she signs "Nzila," and distributes to support the local chapter of the Black Panthers.

Delphine and her sisters have led a fairly sheltered, middle-class life back in Brooklyn. Their grandmother cooks for them; they have a TV; they enjoy all kinds of treats and privileges. Not the least of which are tons of books. Delphine herself can't pack for a month in California without borrowing a stack of books from the public library (notably Beverly Cleary), even budgeting for the overdue fines in advance. And as if that wasn't going to impress the American Library Association enough, her favorite book of all is Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins. One would think she was angling for a historical-novel award that wouldn't even be created till 1982.

Cecile, by contrast, lives in a funky house and eats Chinese takeaway from a tablecloth spread on the living-room floor. She has no activities planned for the kids she barely knows, and spends her time writing instead of reading. The kids are bored. Delphine apparently agrees with Gertrude Stein:

I made up my mind about Oakland. There was nothing and no one in all of Oakland to like. (Chapter "Mean Lady Ming")
And when Oakland isn't boring, it's scary. Cecile sends her daughters to eat breakfast at the Black Panther center, and tells them to stay on for the days' programs, which consist of learning about the Revolution and getting an apprenticeship in community organizing. Much of this stuff is just like summer daycare anywhere, but Panthers are getting arrested in Oakland, even shot and killed. Is the Revolution worth the risk? Among other things,
It didn't make sense to fly three thousand miles to the land of Mickey Mouse, movie stars, and all-year sun and not see anything but Black Panthers, police cars, and poor black people. (Chapter "San Francisco Treat")

No great suspense plot develops around the Black Panther theme. Readers of lection know that I value dramatic plot structures, and One Crazy Summer frankly doesn't have one. Milder stuff than we expect is the stock in trade of the novel's body chapters. But Williams-Garcia compensates by giving us an implicit drama that the characters of her novel at first don't want to acknowledge, even to themselves. Mother wants to get to know daughters, and they want to get to know their mother. In particular, Cecile and Delphine are a lot more alike than either would admit. Unsentimentally, the novel wheels around to put the four women at its heart in contact with one another. It's a subtle and complex work of fiction, and I strongly recommend it. (And now I have to read its sequel P.S. Be Eleven, the Coretta Scott King Author winner for 2014.)

Williams-Garcia, Rita. One Crazy Summer. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. EPub Edition. PZ7 .W6713On