Thursday, July 02, 2015

Split Half In Two: Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia

Can a bloodhound remember you from years back and smell you coming from a half a mile away? Caleb's welcome grew louder. Uncle Darnell winked at me as if to say, Girl, you were surely missed, and my heart clanged. I wanted to be with my grandmother and my great-grandmother more than anything. I wanted us all to be together. As many of us under one roof as could fit. I needed to know we weren't all falling apart.

Oldest sister of the three, Delphine feels like her family is coming apart, bit by bit. Her mother, Camille, is off being a black woman poet in Berkley with the Black Panthers. Her grandmother, Big Ma, moved back to Prattville, Alabama when her dad's outspoken women's lib new wife, "Mrs.," moved in, but now even  the outspoken Marva seems withdrawn and sick. Uncle Darnell, who came back from  Vietnam with a drug problem and swiped the girls' piggybank money  saved to see Michael Jackson, has gone back to Alabama in disgrace. And even though she and her sisters, Vonetta and Fern, have always finished each other's sentences, they, too, are splitting apart. Vonetta refuses to speak to their uncle, and here they are, forced to spend the summer under that same roof.

Delphine can't force herself to read her teacher's favorite book, Things Fall Apart, because even with its African setting, it seems way too close to home.

And despite the love she feels from Big Ma and great-grandmother Ma Charles, Delphine finds that at age twelve, she is more aware of the rifts back home and those strangely between Ma Charles and her half-sister Miss Trotter, who share a father, Slim Jim Trotter, whose rickety bridge to his two wives still connects and divides the warring sisters. Big Ma and Aunt Miss Trotter pick Vonetta, who has a flair for dramatic story-telling, to send insulting versions of family history back and forth across that bridge to each other. Delphine goes along quietly, spending a lot of time in her favorite pecan tree, except to stake out her own turf by refusing to iron Ma Charles' sheets with Argo starch and a pair of heavy flat irons older than both the warring sisters. Little Fern takes her own stand on refusing to eat any animals--Big Ma's chickens and ham and Great-Aunt Miss Trotter's venison barbeque. Except for her fifteen-year-old cousin JimmyTrotter, who finds it all very amusing, Delphine feels like her family is, in that apt Alabama phrase, split half-in-two, with herself left right in the middle.

But when Vonetta takes off down the road in a huff on JimmyTrotter's bike, a sudden tornado descends, ripping everyone's house in two but Ma Charles'. And Vonetta is missing, the bike found in two pieces, up a tree. The family that seemed hopelessly split comes together seamlessly. The girls' mother borrows plane fare and appears right away, Dad and Mrs., now clearly pregnant, make the long drive from Brooklyn, and Aunt Miss Trotter and JimmyTrotter move in to share whatever comfort they can give. It's as if Delphine sees her family's strong roots come together, holding them all strong as they fear for Vonetta. She sees the bond of parenthood between her own parents, she sees the stubborn bonds of family between Ma Charles and her proudly part-Indian half-sister, and then she has a glimpse of how those roots run even deeper into the community than she could have imagined.

The sheriff trudged up to the house. I knew who he was. I knew he wore a white sheet when he wasn't wearing his badge.

He tapped on the screen door and called out "'Phelia! You there? Mama? It's Davey Lee."

"Taranada"--that was exactly how he said it, with four syllables, "wasn't the worst, but it was bad enough to toss that Negro rag doll clear out of this lifetime. Better the truth than a fairy tale."

"We're not asking you for no fairy tale," Ma Charles said. "We're asking you to do what the sheriff's supposed to do. Find our lost child."

"Yes, Mama," the sheriff said.

"Just go find her, son. Go find her."

My great-grandmother called the Klan son.

Set in 1969 during the days of the moon landing, with humanity on two separate spheres as well, Rita Williams-Garcia's third book in her powerful trilogy, Gone Crazy in Alabama (Amistad, 2015) reveals the constancy of family despite the things that divide them. Like Slim-Jim Trotter's narrow bridge, they divide and connect, reforming themselves in each generation without falling away from their source. Williams-Garcia's choice of Delphine, the almost-thirteen oldest daughter, gives us a narrator who comes of age just in time to see the complexity and the glory of family revealed in this outstanding series. Written with down-home humor and characters, living and dead, so strong and real that they step right off the pages, and a theme that that binds it all together, these are novels not to be missed. With the earlier Coretta Scott King Award books, One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven this concluding novel tells a family story that is uniquely American and yet in many ways the story of us all.

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