In One Crazy Summer, 11-year-old Delphine sure doesn't take her mom for granted. Cecile left Delphine, her 9-year-old sister Vonetta, and her 7-year-old sister Fern when Fern was just a baby - and now their father has decided it's time for the three girls to fly out from New York to Oakland for the summer of 1968 to get to know their long-lost mother Cecile.
Cecile - or Nzilla as she calls herself now - is formidable. Tall and given to wearing pants, hats, scarves, and sunglasses, she exudes an exciting menace and intensity - which is absolutely not for show, as she is so focused on her poetry that she has little attention left over to share with her 3 daughters or anyone else. There is no softness or give to her and she doesn't care what anyone thinks. She won't even waste a kind word on her own kids, much less give them breakfast or lunch, but at least she is always true to her own nature. If it wasn't for her extreme selfishness, especially where her daughters are concerned, I'd find her quite admirable.
Delphine, a pragmatic and "plain" child (as in plain-spoken, plain-thinking), thinks her mom is crazy, pure and simple, and isn't thrilled to have to be spending all day every day at a day camp run by the Black Panthers, where she has to watch Vonetta make lots of friends instantly and defend Fern from people who make fun of her for loving her little white baby doll Miss Patty Cake. It's surely difficult being the sensible big sister when you're thrust into a bizarre situation.
Throughout the next few weeks, Delphine figures out how to make the visit work, making delicate arrangements with her mom (such as being allowed in the kitchen - where Nzilla's printing press is - to make dinner), making a few friends, observing the goings-on of the Black Panthers with a wary eye, and even managing to take her sisters on a great trip to San Francisco. When her mother is arrested and later released, she and her mother have a showdown that is both painful and cathartic, and for me the most powerful part of the whole book.
Throughout this novel are many moments that illustrate the often uncomfortable and awkward rubbing together of the old Black culture (Delphine's grandma Big Ma, for example, who refers to herself as Negro or Colored) and the new (the Black Panthers, modern career women who don't automatically identify with Big Ma just because they share the same race). Delphine observes and judges it all, but refrains from forming her own hard and fast opinion - or perhaps it's just that she would rather try to get through each day. Delphine takes so much on her shoulders - finally her own mother (rather ironically) advises her to just let go, have fun, and be eleven years old.
The part of this book that touched me most is the way Delphine keeps thinking and worrying about Fern and her white baby doll Miss Patty Cake. Fern has loved that doll since she was an infant - but when Vonetta ruins Miss Patty Cake in a fit of rage, Fern seems to forget all about the doll. What does it mean? How can Fern forget all about something she has loved so long and so deeply? Is she mourning her on the inside? What is going on? It makes us wonder, too, which brings us back to the mystery of Cecile and how she could leave her family. There aren't any real answers, but lots to ponder.
The climax at the protest, with the girls' reciting of Nzilla's poem and Fern's own bombshell of a poem, felt inauthentic to me - it was too much a Book Moment, especially Fern's part. Could a 7-year-old really understand what the scene she witnessed meant, and articulate it so forcefully? Nah. It was effective - but at the price of the realism that pervades the rest of the book.
As the third generation to be born in Oakland, after my dad and my dad's mom (broke the chain with my own kids, darn it), I'm thrilled to see a slice of Oakland history, and of Black history, brought to such vivid life. Now a part of me will always see Oakland through Delphine's eyes.
Highly recommended for grades 4 - 7.