fiction favorites…One Crazy Summer

One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia

All the way to the airport, Pa had tried to act like he was dropping off three sacks of wash at the Laundromat.  I’d seen through Pa…He has only one or two faces, nothing hidden, nothing exaggerated.  Even though it had been his idea that we fly out to Oakland to see Cecile, Pa’d never once said how exciting our trip would be.  He just said that seeing Cecile was something whose time had come.  That it had to be done.  Just because he decided it was time for us to see her didn’t mean he wanted us to go.”
“When Cecile left, Fern wasn’t on the bottle.  Vonetta could walk but wanted to be picked up.  I was four going on five.  Pa wasn’t sick, but he wasn’t doing well either.  That was when Big Ma came up from Alabama to see about us.  Even though Big Ma read her Scripture daily, she hadn’t considered forgiveness where Cecile was concerned…even if Cecile showed up on Papa’s welcome mat, Big Ma wouldn’t swing the front door open.  That was why Pa had put us on a plane to Oakland.
Papa had kissed Vonetta and Fern and told me to look after my sisters.  Even though looking after them would have been nothing new, I kissed him and said, “I will, Papa.”

It’s the summer of 1968, and 11-year-old Delphine is in charge of seeing her younger sisters safely to Oakland, California, to meet the mother they’ve never known.  The mother who gave birth to them, but walked out of their lives when Fern was still just a newborn.  A woman Delphine has only fuzzy memories of…memories of pencils tapping rhythms, of poetry spilling across the kitchen walls.

As they’ve awaited their trip, the girls have been doing some serious California dreamin’, complete with surf boards, movie stars, and Disneyland.  But when they actually arrive, they are met by a cold and distant mother.  A brusque, unemotional woman who mutters about “never asking them to come out here.”  A mysterious poet in men’s pants and dark shades. A clandestine woman with friends wearing black berets.

In fact, the girls have landed in the midst of the Black Panthers’ most happenin’ location.  Their days are spent at a summer camp run by the revolutionary group, so they will keep out of Cecile’s hair.  It’s not at all what Delphine has bargained for, but she’s promised her Pa to look after her sisters, and she is determined to do just that.

This 2010 Coretta Scott King Award Winner/Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award Winner/Newbery Honor book is a fascinating, compelling read.  It’s set in tumultuous, 1968 Oakland,  intriguingly exploring life in the highly controversial Black Panther movement.  Yet Delphine’s chief conflict is the very personal hurt she feels due to her mother’s abandonment.   Why did she leave them?  Who is she, really?  Delphine’s greatest longing is to be mothered, to receive some affection and affirmation from this critical person, so removed from her life.  The tremendous hurts of a motherless child are embodied by Delphine, and we feel them deeply.

Williams-Garcia also takes us into the heart and soul of the Sixties through vivid characters, dynamic dialogue, emotional intensity, and a myriad references to pop culture  — Jackie O’s fashion style, muumuus and slide projectors, collect calls and beehive hairdos, go-go boots and “pigs.”   She vividly creates the world of the Black Panthers, ushering us right into the front row of summer camp, right into the dizzying mash of relationships and events Delphine experiences, and focusing on the systemic injustices the Black Panthers fought and the positive social causes they undertook, countering this slightly with Big Ma’s unfavorable views of them.

In the end, Delphine comes to understand a portion of the difficulties which caused her mother to leave her babies, though she is not exonerated in Delphine’s mind.  Delphine gets a small portion of what she came to California for, and leaves with an increased understanding of the complexities of life.  No easy, tidy conclusion, but growth in understanding.  I believe this is what readers are left with, as well.   No easy, tidy conclusions, but valuable growth in understanding the complexities of a messy world.

Great read, probably best for ages 12 and up.  Girls will definitely enjoy this more than boys.

Amazon link: One Crazy Summer