Delphine is old for an eleven-year-old. You’ve met these kids before – serious girls who seem to take the weight of the world onto their small shoulders. When her mother was still around, she taught Delphine to be unselfish, silent, and self-sufficient – not the most childlike qualities. And ever since her mother took off and left Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern alone with their father, Delphine has taken on a lot of responsibility for her younger sisters.
And now, in the summer of 1968, the three girls are on their way across the country to Oakland to spend a summer with their absentee mother. The younger girls arrive with dreams of hugs and kisses from mom, sunny days on the beach, and trips to Disneyland. Those hopes are dashed pretty quickly – instead it’s going to be greasy take-out food, a mother who resents their presence in her house, and days spent at the free summer program led by the local Black Panthers.
As a historical novel, one of the strengths of this story is that it makes the political into the personal. Instead of dropping these three girls into a major historical moment from the history of the Black Panthers, as is the temptation in historical fiction, Garcia-Williams instead gives us a family story that takes place within the context of day-to-day life among the people who made up the movement. The story shows a side of the Black Panthers that doesn’t get a lot of attention now, and as Delphine points out didn’t get noticed even at the time – the free community breakfasts and peaceful rallies instead of the confrontational tactics that are usually remembered. Their sudden relationship with the Black Panthers does change the girls significantly, making them take a closer look at their own identity as well as the social change that is happening around them, but never in a way that is didactic. It just grows out of the story.
Williams-Garcia also manages to make the late-sixties setting always present, slipping in details about television shows or clothes, without making it feel too distant. The details she chooses are evocative enough to give a sense of time, but relatable enough that kids won’t feel alienated in that capital-H Historical Fiction kind of way. As with any great historical fiction, the center of the novel is not the history, but instead a universal story, in this case a family story about both the struggle for the love of a parent and the search for a personal identity.
Cecile is not like any mother that these girls have ever seen – her kitchen is used for writing and printing poems, not for laundry and making dinner. In a children’s story where three little girls are sent to stay with their distant, uncaring mother, it is easy to expect the kind of trite sea-change that would lead to Cecile suddenly turning into a maternal figure. Instead, she seems to develop a grudging respect for the three girls – a growth arc that is both more interesting and more true to the character than what could have been a stock character reversal.
The family dynamic between the three sisters is a treat to read. These are three very different girls – responsible almost-grown-up Delphine, dramatic and needy Vonetta, and set-in-her-ways Fern who notices things around her. While they bicker and argue between themselves, as siblings do, they are also fiercely loyal to each other, especially any time that they step outside of the primarily-black community where they live. When they go on the offensive they present a hysterical united front to the world – these girls will batter down any takers with a wall of little-girl patter coming from three sides. Their relationship is a big part of what makes this book such a delight.
Rita Williams-Garcia on the web.