Sunday, July 09, 2017

Los Angeles, 1965: It All Comes Down to This by Karen English

I trudged home to get my swimsuit. I went to find Mrs. Baylor to tell her where I was going. She was mopping the kitchen, and stopped and put her hand on her hip, waiting.

"I'm going swimming down at the Bakers'" I said.

"So they invited you to go swimming down at their house, did they?"

"Jennifer wants to go. She said it'll be okay." I replied.

"And you believe that, do you? Hummph." Mrs. Baylor kind of chuckled to herself. "You go on, girl. And see what happen to you. You not a little white girl. You going to see."

I knew I wasn't a little white girl. I knew who I was.

It's Los Angeles in 1965. Sophie's family has just moved into an upscale, mostly white neighborhood. She's found a best friend in Jennifer, whose family seems to have no color line. But Sophie's big sister Lily, about to head off to Spelman College, has warned her that she needs to find more than one friend, especially since Jennifer will be going to a different school in the fall. But it looks like the Baker sisters aren't going to be those friends.

"Hi, Jilly," Jennifer said. "Can we swim?"

Jilly crossed her arms. "You know we don't allow colored people in our pool--or in our house."

Although Jennifer refuses to stay without her, Sophie sees that those happy summer days at the pool are not for her. And when she studies hard to audition for a role in the Community Center play, she sees the role go to someone else, a white girl who scarcely knows any of the lines. Despite her light skin and their parents' incomes, Sophie sees that the color line still exists for her. And when Jennifer returns from camp with a new friendship with another girl, Sophie feels left out even more.

Then, when Mrs. Baylor's handsome college-age son Nathan comes to do some painting for her parents, Sophie is shocked when her mother tells Lily to stay away from him because he's too dark-skinned for her. It seems that even "colored people" have a color line. That's a new realization for Sophie, and it makes her see her parents' ambitions in a different light. And as the Watts riots of 1965 begin in Mrs. Baylor's neighborhood, Nathan is arrested when he drives through to check on a friend. Everything is turned upside down in Sophie's life. Despite their comfortable life in an upper-middle class suburb, Sophie notices that her light-skinned, straight-haired sister allows her employer to believe she is Jewish to keep her summer job in a tony downtown dress shop. Despite her own relatively fair skin, Sophie's sees her being turned away from a white neighbor's pool comes from the same place as her own mother's prejudice against Lily's dating her housekeeper's dark-skinned son and her obvious social climbing schemes among "suitable" families.

In her forthcoming novel, It All Comes Down to This (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), author Karen English displays her unique ability to get into a character and tell the story from the inside out, in her character's distinctive voice. While the story is told through Sophie's eyes and narration, English also portrays Sophie's class-conscious mother, her unfaithful father, and the sometimes grumpy Mrs. Baylor sympathetically as flawed characters who love her and want the best for her as they see it.

But the focus on Sophie and Lily is pivotal for the reader. Set in 1965, Karen English's story may at first seem to young readers to be about a distant time, but they will immediately recognize many of the stresses Sophie faces, the usual events of early adolescence--a new neighborhood, a new school, a pretty older sister who seems better at everything, problems between well-meaning but self-absorbed parents--all of which are exacerbated by issues of race and class and social and political upheaval that encroach upon on her life. For Sophie and for English's readers, it all comes down to finding your own values in a time of social change, and English's deft statement of this theme adds depth to Sophie's coming-of-age story and makes this novel a timely and engrossing read for middle-schoolers of all ethnicities. While fully grounded in its sixties setting, this novel does not seem like historical fiction; all that is missing are cell phones to make this story fully believable in the present.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home