Reviewed in Australia on 8 February 2017
What a delicious, haunting little book. It’s not fat physically, but it’s sure full of food for thought. Although I have touched on some of the main points of the story (the challenges August faces), this isn't plot-driven, and most is shown to us early.
August and her younger brother have just buried their father, and she looks back twenty years and tells their story. She has had counselling from a therapist, who tells her everyone has suffered tragedies, as if that will ease August’s suffering. (Aren't most of us guilty of that?)
We share her experience as a young girl growing up without a mother. That’s the first challenge.
She keeps assuring her little brother that their mother “is coming, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” , but when she asks her father what’s in the jar, he tells her, with increasing exasperation “You know what’s in that jar.”
She was a carefree, little black girl (the second challenge) in SweetGrove, Tennessee, but her father moved the children to Brooklyn (the third challenge). She reminisces about the first time she saw her three best friends from her window.
“The three of them walked down our block, dressed in halter tops and shorts, arms linked together, heads thrown back, laughing. I watched until they disappeared, wondering who they were, how they . . . became.”
When she has happy times with her three best friends -
“the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying ‘Here. Help me carry this.”
They are slightly different colours and from slightly different social strata (the fourth and fifth challenges) and have to learn to navigate each other’s families. They look different, come from different tribes (my words) – braids, cornrows, long wavy hair, part-Chinese, reddish hair, darker or lighter skin.
She and her brother are tight friends, sharing a room, holding hands for comfort. They spend time looking out their window at the people passing by, wondering how and what they will become when they grow up.
“Everywhere we looked, we saw the people trying to dream themselves out. As though there was someplace other than this place. As though there was another Brooklyn.”
And as the girls develop curves, they also learn to navigate the increasing attention of males, both the predatory, creepy older ones and the same-age, urgently horny younger ones whom they want to satisfy. (Now we're up to her sixth challenge.)
“‘The pastor at my church comes up behind me sometimes when I’m singing in choir,’ Gigi said. ‘I can feel his thing on my back. Don’t sing in your church choir. Or if you sing in it, go to another place while you sing.’ And she whispered how she was the queen of other places. ‘Close my eyes and boom, I’m gone. I learned it from my mother,’ she told us. ‘So many days you look in that woman’s eyes and she isn’t even there.’”
This is an experience that would be familiar to most girls and women I know – unwanted physical contact – and the advice that many have probably followed. Kind of like “don’t ask, don’t tell”. I remember hearing English wives were counselled to “Lie back and think of England,” to ensure English population growth.
“Summer came again and men and boys were everywhere, feathery hands on our backsides in crowds, eyes falling too long at our chests, whispers into our ears as we passed strangers. Promises – of things they could do to us, with us, for us.”
Then a cheerleader captain was badly beaten by her family.
“’She got a baby inside her,’ her brother finally admitted. ‘She got sent back Down South.’
“We pulled our boyfriends’ fingers from inside of us, pushed them away, buttoned our blouses. We knew Down South. Everyone had one. Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico. The threat of a place we could end back up in to be raised by a crusted-over single auntie or strict grandmother.”
Their father forms a serious liaison with a Muslim woman after joining the Nation of Islam, (peacefully and happily). He brings home Sister Loretta, whom they like very much and who tells them they are eating poison, and shows them the right way to live. (And I think this is thing number 7, more than enough challenges for one person.)
So she’s motherless, young, coloured, either more or less poor than her friends, doesn’t quite belong to any tribe, and is becoming a teenager full of hormones. And her father’s new faith means it’s goodbye bacon and ham sandwiches at home. Then comes the counselling, mentioned earlier.
“Sister Sonja was a thin woman, her brown face all angles beneath a black hijab. So this is who the therapist became to me – the woman with the hijab, fingers tapered, dark eyes questioning. by then, maybe it was too late.”
In this short book, we even get to see a bit of what happened to the girls when they grew up. It is just wonderful. There were a few repetitive phrases, which jarred ever so slightly, but by golly, what a fine piece of work this is.
Thanks to NetGalley and OneWorld Publications for the review copy from which I've quoted, and I truly hope the quotes don't change in the final copy. I love the writing!