I’m not much of a hot-topic, controversial issue person. However, I do love a good story, and if the story is peopled with memorable characters, I like it all the better. One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia might feel like one of those forced, pedantic, let’s-talk-about-this-time-period-in-history-now-students stories, if it weren’t for Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern. Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are the Gaither sisters, and they are put on a plane in NYC (Brooklyn, to be exact) and flown across the country for a month-long visit with their run-away mother, Cecile. Delphine, age eleven, only has a foggy memory of Cecile, and her younger sisters really don’t remember her at all. That’s okay, though–they have their daddy, Big Ma (their grandmother), and Delphine, the most responsible of big sisters. However, once the girls find themselves in Oakland, California, they find that their mother still isn’t much of a mother. What’s more, she’s involved in a political movement that Delphine knows only from watching the news with Big Ma: Cecile is involved with the Black Panthers, somehow. Cecile essentially kicks the girls out of the house every morning with the instructions that they are to breakfast at the community center and return home in time to eat their supper and go to bed. That’s what the girls do, but not without learning more about the movement (of course) and eventually, about their mother.
Honestly, I don’t like conflict, and I don’t really even like it in books. (You understand when I say conflict, I mean man vs. man, specifically. 🙂 ) What won me over in this book are the voices of Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern. They are perfect. Perfect. I can just imagine these three little black girls who have been loved, cared for, and protected by their daddy and Big Ma, landing in California to no parental supervision whatsoever, and their reactions to this puzzling situation. (Of course, like Sherry, I have to suspend my disbelief that their daddy and Big Ma would actually send them west to begin with.)
This is Delphine:
I’m used to doing what’s hard. Like three days’ worth of homework in one night to catch up from being out of school sick. Like forty-six push-ups in sixty seconds to win a bet with a boy. Like standing mean mouthed over Vonetta and Fern until they swallow a tablespoon each of hard pine cough syrup. But saying “please” without actually saying it to someone you don’t want to say “please” to in the first place tops the list of hard. (53)
Rita Williams-Garcia has the big sister-middle sister-little sister relationship down to a T. Delphine bosses both girls, knows her middle sister Vonetta too well (Vonetta is “showy and crowy”), and babies Fern. She takes this admonition from Big Ma to heart:
Big Ma taught me to be a hard washboard scrubber. To not accept dirt, dust, or stains on clothes, floors, or walls, or on ourselves. “Scrub like you’re a gal from a one-cow town near Prattville, Alabama,” she’d tell me while Vonetta and Fern ran around and played. (95)
Of course, Delphine does come out of herself a little bit in the story, but I would like to have spent more time with her. The story ends somewhat abruptly, with the girls leaving California to return to New York. They get to know their mother just a little bit, but really, there is no love lost between them. There is no weepy reconciliation, but again, there is a lot of good characterization in this story.
This book has won a host of awards: a Newbery honor (2011), a National Book Award finalist designation (2010), and a Coretta Scott King Award (2011), and it was nominated for a Cybils award. The writing is top-notch, no doubt about it. The story just doesn’t feel finished to me, and honestly, I can’t imagine many middle-grade kids being interested in the political climate of California and the U.S. in the 1960s, but maybe that’s just me. Of course, the real strength of the story is in its characterization, so maybe that would be enough to spark interest. Incidentally, there is a sideways reference to abortion in the story, but it goes over the head of Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern, and I think it would go over the head of most middle-grade readers. The bottom line: this is a compelling story because of the characters, and perhaps (dare I say it?) even in spite of its setting. I have a feeling I’d like to Delphine wherever I met her.