Friday, December 31, 2010

Power to the People

One Crazy Summerby Rita Williams-Garcia, Amistad, 2010, 224 pages, ISBN: 0060760885

I love the sixties, and anything about the sixties.  Many middle school students, girls in particular, go through a stage where they dig the sixties, too.  It's no wonder; the sixties were an exciting time, and there was a lot going on:  the music, the protests, the flower children, the Black Panthers.  One Crazy Summer, a National Book Award Finalist, is an evocative depiction of this happening time.  The story is told by Delphine, an eleven year-old girl, who, along with her two sisters, Vonette, nine, and Fern, seven, lives in Brooklyn with Pa and Big Ma, her paternal grandmother.  The girls' mother Cecile, a poet, left them when Fern was a baby and now resides in Oakland, California.

In the summer of 1968, Pa decides it is time for them to go visit their mother.  Delphine dreams of Disneyland, sunshine, and movie stars, but when they get to California, they find it considerably less magical.  Cecile has no time for them:  She is busy writing poetry on the walls and printing flyers for the Black Panthers.  Instead of Disneyland, they are sent to the Black Panther Community Center every morning for breakfast.  They stay to play in the park and take classes from the Panthers.  Every night they eat takeout Chinese because Cecile does not want them in the kitchen.  After a time, Delphine decides to buy groceries and cook dinner herself because takeout food is sometime food, not for everyday eating.  Against Cecile's wishes, Delphine insinuates herself into the kitchen, where she cooks and cleans, but leaves Cecile's work alone.

Although she doesn't get to Disneyland, Delphine does treat her sisters to a San Francisco excursion, just the kind of day-trip I'd like to take.  When they step off the bus, they are greeted by hippies and flower children.  They visit Chinatown, where they eat dumplings and window shop, and then climb aboard a cable car and head to Fisherman's Wharf  to see the Golden Gate Bridge.  Some intrigue and surprises await the sisters upon their return to Oakland.

One Crazy Summer is a good peek back into the turbulent sixties, one that middle school readers will enjoy, and presents several interesting issues to get them rapping.  One of the questions this book poses is what is a woman's place?  To take care of her children?  To practice her art?  As the summer unfolds, Delphine and her sisters forge a new relationship with their reluctant mother, and she with them.  As impossible as it would seem to empathize with a mother who has deserted her children, by book's end Williams-Garcia has me doing just that.  Also, she challenges the stereotype of the Black Panthers as an extremely violent organization outside the law.  I knew that the Black Panthers were at times unfairly targeted by the law; unarmed Bobby Hutton, for instance, had been gunned down by the police, but I certainly never considered the organization as nurturing.  Yet, in One Crazy Summer, Rita Williams-Garcia presents us with just that.  At the Black Panther Community Center, children of all races are fed, and black children are taught pride and strength and unity.

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