The story of Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern Gaither continues in P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia. This story picks up immediately where One Crazy Summer leaves off–with the Gaither girls returning to Brooklyn from their visit with their radical mother, Cecile, in Oakland, California. P.S. Be Eleven brings up a lot of issues of the 1960s and ’70s: the Vietnam War, drug abuse, the women’s lib movement, blended families, etc. All of the issues are handled with a deft hand, which is certainly what I’d expect from Williams-Garcia. I think I like this one a bit better than One Crazy Summer (its multiple awards notwithstanding) because we see the Gaither girls in their home environment, far away from Cecile and the Black Panthers. Instead, we have their grandmother, Big Ma, and their daddy and their home in the ghetto. From the first chapter, though, change is brewing–Pa has a woman-friend, and half way through the story or so, the girls get a new stepmother. Cecile isn’t entirely out of the picture, though, since the girls write to their mother and she writes back. She admonishes Delphine in her postscripts to “be eleven,” so even this worldly-wise woman tries to brake Delphine’s growing up. Add to this the trouble Uncle Darnell brings home with him when he returns from Vietnam, as well as school drama between Delphine and her friends-cum-enemies both male and female, and what we have is an engrossing and entertaining coming-of-age novel.
What shines in this novel to me is the characterization. I can just hear the three sisters yipping and yapping at one another, with Delphine ever the in-charge big sister, a surrogate mother for Vonetta and Fern. My favorite character, though, is Big Ma. Maybe it’s because she’s from Alabama and I can absolutely hear her voice; maybe it’s because I know women like her. I don’t know–I just know I love her, and I think she’s very accurately portrayed.
Big Ma was talking silently. Just not to us. She was filled up with prayer and had been talking to the Lord all morning. She had only broken prayer to fuss with Pa about Miss Marva Hendrix. (112)
Big Ma never made quick-fast-in-a-hurry food. She made food that needed washing before it touched a knife, pot, or pan. Or she made beans that soaked overnight and simmered with neck bones for a good part of the next day. And stewed meat in heavy enamel pots, with bay leaves and carrots and potatoes that soaked up gravy. Big Ma cooked food meant to stick to your insides and keep your belly full. (224)
I’m never sure if the intended age range for a middle-grade novel like this, chock-full of sociopolitical issues, is correct. Will middle graders care about Vietnam and women’s libbers? I don’t know. The Gaither girls’ lives are interesting, though, and their voices are pitch-perfect, and that’s the real strength of this novel. It’s not my favorite of the Cybils middle grade nominees, but so far it’s pretty high on the list. (HarperCollins, 2013)