Appetizer: During the summer of 1968, eleven-year-old Delphine and her two little sisters are on their way to Oakland to spend a month with their mother who left them and their father almost six years ago.
The woman that meets Delphine, Vonetta and Fern at the airport is a bit strange, keeping her face hidden. Her house is also a bit unusual and their mother, Cecile, won't let the girls go in the kitchen. It doesn't take long for Delphine to realize that their mother is crazy. But soon after that, they realize that there may be a reason behind some of Cecile's strange behavior: she may be involved with the Black Panthers.
This book (currently being talked about as a potential winner for both the Coretta Scott King and Newbery awards) has a lot of social studies tie-ins. Rather than list them in a boring way, I thought I'd make a word cloud:
It was also easy to relate to Delphine emotionally. She's responsible for her sisters and takes her job very seriously. I also felt so awful for these girls after they arrived in Oakland. Hungry after a long flight, their mother refuses to feed them unless they give her all of the money their father had given them.
It gave me the nervy-creepers.
And I realized that if this woman, if Cecile, were my mother. I would have died a slow painful death to starvation.
I would not have been able to trust that woman, but I also would not have been able to fend for myself. Not when I was eleven. Not now. During my last visit to my parents house I finally and really-truly, for reals realized that I will forever be a child in my parents house.
This does not mean that they treat me like a child. They, in fact, do not.
Shel: Can I go over to Holly's?
The Mother: I don't care.
Shel: Is it okay if I go over to Holly's?
The Father: You don't have to ask permission.
Shel: So, it's okay if I go?
The Father: You're not a prisoner.
Shel: So then I can steal your car?
The childlike behavior is all on me.
When I'm in Columbus, living alone, I am a somewhat-mature adult. I clean (usually a randomly selected portion of a room) once-ish a month (twice if I'm really mature that month). I clean my cats' litters every night. I shop for groceries and cook--even some "fancy" stuff like roasted asparagus.
At my parents house, none of this happens.
The mother and I engage in passive aggressive battles of who will cave and finally load the dishes in the sink into the dishwasher. (I always win, since I'm the one who doesn't mind the mess) I wait for the cat litters to actually become smelly-gross before carrying the entire tray outside and dumping it behind the shed.
And, worst of all, the source of quite a bit of suffering on my part, I will not eat unless a parent is there to serve me food. I'm like a baby bird, beak open, chirping for Mommy to return to the nest with a worm. And if the mommy bird doesn't make it home, the baby DIES.
Somewhere within the several hundred miles between my home and my parents', I lose all ability to forage for myself.
I suffer from head aches, listlessness and drowsiness waiting for my parents to arrive home, god willing with Chinese take-out in hand.
I suppose I could cook. But a bit of fear sets in at the mere thought. Since I didn't do the shopping, I don't know that the house is stocked with the foods I prefer. Plus, my parents remodeled the kitchen after I already left for college. I don't know where any of those pots and pans thingies are kept. And The Mother will yel--speak with great authority and conviction if she feels I have misplaced one of her colanders.
Also, since I only figured out how to boil water a couple of years ago, when I do cook, there's always some suspense to it, as far as The Parents are concerned. Will the baby burn down the kitchen? Will the baby's meal be edible? Will the baby spray too much Pam on the baking sheet? Will the baby drop the oven mit in the marinara sauce again? None of these questions are actually asked out loud.
My parents do not arrange to bring me dinner. They long ago got their own lives and play an evening round of golf. I just expect them to provide food for me.
Now, I'm not saying I'm the weakest little beastie, drawn toward extinction due to my bad genes. I still find a way to survive. Mostly, I eat from a giant bag of carrots on one of the refrigerator's drawers:
Notice how the bag is torn open, with bunny-like little claws and how I have never bothered to tie the back closed to prevent the carrots from becoming scaly white. That would be too mature.
It's far more child-like to nibble on a few disgusting carrots and then call The Father to ask when he'll be home.
Baby carrots, my Few But Dear Readers, that is how I am still alive after six weeks of starving in my parents' house.
Frankly, I'm surprised I didn't turn orange from eating too many carrots before I returned to Ohio.
Mentioning skin color (turning orange!), one of the subplots of the book involves Fern carrying around her beloved doll, Miss Patty Cake. This causes some trouble for her and her sisters since the doll is white. Delphine narrates:
"No one could call Fern White Baby Lover even though Miss Patty Cake was a white baby and Fern loved her. No one could call Fern a Big Baby but Vonetta and me...But I didn't care. Fern could love Miss Patty Cake all she wanted. We could call ourselves Vanilla Wafers, Chocolate Chips, or Oreo Cookies for all I cared about black girls and colored girls" (p.67).
I thought this element of the text (as well as some others) would be a great way to begin discussing how race is perceived in this country. I'd probably pair this portion of the book with this video of a recreation of Clark's Doll study:
So, I have to admit, while there are a lot of awesome uses for this book in a classroom and while Delphine is a relatable and well-constructed character who shares about an important aspect of history well, nothing about this story drove me I-can't-put-this-down-I-love-this-book-crazy. I read it to get through it. And I think my childhood-self would have approached the book in the same way.
I think it drove me a little crazy to see exactly how responsible Delphine was for caring for her sisters. As I was reading, I'd think "What about Delphine?! Nobody puts Delphine in a corner!" and the like. The girl was a nanny machine. I suppose my difficulty connecting with her could be the fact that I'm an only child or the fact that in the presence of my mom I revert to being a baby (metaphorically speaking, of course). So, despite Delphine's struggles over what to believe and the fact that her superhero ability to care for her siblings was addressed, she just felt like a too perfect character who never really got a chance to breathe. Ever.
But that's just me. My personal reaction certainly won't stop me from recommending this book to...oh, everyone.
"Good thing the plane had seat belts and we'd been strapped in tight before takeoff. Without them, that last jolt would have been enough to throw Vonetta into orbit and Fern across the aisle. Still, I anchored myself and my sisters best as I could to brace us for whatever came next" (p. 1).
"Mother is a statement of fact. Cecile Johnson gave birth to us. We came out of Cecile Johnson. In the animal kingdom that makes her our mother. Every mammal on the planet has a mother, dead or alive. Ran off or stayed put. Cecile Johnson--mammal birth giver, alive, an abandoner--is our mother. A statement of fact.
Even in the song we sing when we miss having a mother--and not her but a mother, period--we sing about a mother. "Mother's gotta go now, la-la-la-la-la..." Never Mommy, Mom, Mama, or Ma.
Mommy gets up to give you a glass of water in the middle of the night. Mom invites your friends inside when it's raining. Mama burns your ears with the hot comb to make your hair look pretty for class picture day. Ma is sore and worn out from wringing your wet clothes and hanging them to dry; Ma needs peace and quiet at the end of the day.
We don't have one of those. We have a statement of fact" (p. 14).
"I was sure they were Black Panthers. They were on the news a lot lately. The Panthers on TV said they were in communities to protect poor black people from the powerful; to provide things like food, clothing and medical help; and to fight racism. Even so, most people were afraid of Black Panthers because they carried rifles and shouted "Black Power." From what I could see, these three didn't have rifles, and Cecile didn't seem afraid" (p. 45).
Tasty Rating: !!!