Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Middle Grades
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Newbery Buzz: Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia

Continuing our series of discussions on contenders for the 2016 Newbery Award, Janie and Betsy turn their attention to a previous honor winner . . .gone-crazy

Betsy: The Gaither sisters are back in a third installment: Gone Crazy in Alabama. Rita Williams-Garcia took home a 2011 Newbery Honor and a Coretta Scott King Award for the first book, One Crazy Summer, about Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern. The three sisters traveled to see their eccentric revolutionary mother in California during the summer of 1968—heyday of the Black Panther movement. Award-winning P.S. Be Eleven followed the girls back home to Brooklyn for Delphine’s sixth grade year, a year full of big changes in her home life as well as the usual middle school angst. As her mother’s letters kept encouraging her to “be eleven,” Delphine struggled to find her place. Gone Crazy picks right up where P.S. Be Eleven leaves off as the girls head to Alabama to spend the summer with Big Ma, their grandmother. In the late 1960s, the differences between Brooklyn and rural Alabama for African Americans are stark. Williams-Garcia anchors each book in a series of relationships through which Delphine views the world. Gone Crazy is centered around Delphine’s great-grandmother (Ma Charles) and Ma’s half sister (Miss Trotter).

So, Janie, first questions first: with any book in a series, award committees wrestle with “can this book stand alone?” You read the first book, but you didn’t read P.S. Be Eleven. I thought P.S. Be Eleven could stand alone, but I’m not sure this third book is as strong by itself. What do you think? Do the many nuances of the relationships and past history shine through for new readers?

Janie: I essentially read it as a stand-alone, because I missed the second installment and because it’s been four years since I reviewed One Crazy Summer. The main difficulty, as with most books that continue a series, is information overload at the beginning. I think the author handles this about as well as anybody, and what helps is Delphine’s distinctive voice. It’s entertaining enough to draw in a reader (this reader, anyway) and allow time to let the missed pieces fall in line. Every good sequel tells its own story, and there’s enough good story material here for the plot to take off on its own with a little patience from the reader. Another (small) problem is that once the girls arrive in Alabama they have a lot of family to meet, which can get a bit confusing–both for them and for us.

It’s fitting, though, because this book—and the previous books, for that matter, are all about family. Williams-Garcia is very honest about the ups and downs of family life and her portrayal of the relationship between Delphine and Vonetta (the next-oldest) is crucial. These girls are having some serious issues, as other family strains—such as the ongoing absence of their mother and their problems with Uncle Darnell—ratchet up the intensity between them. I think that’s why the feud between Ma Charles and Miss Trotter is so crucial to the plot. Last month I attended a panel discussion featuring Rita Williams-Garcia, in which she said that those ladies’ long-standing antipathy became the heart of the story for her. How would you describe that relationship, Betsy?

Betsy: That relationship is one of my favorite parts of this book. It makes the book so much more than a middle-grades sister story. The older women mirror much of the same antipathy-love mix that Delphine and Vonetta exhibit–they even use the girls as couriers to hurl insults back and forth.  But it becomes  clear that Ma Charles and Miss Trotter genuinely care about each other under their gruff exteriors. Vonetta, especially, enjoys being carrying the put-downs back and forth. Perhaps she understands the half-sisters’ underlying affection for one another better than Delphine seems to, or perhaps she simply identifies with Miss Trotter while Delphine is more like Ma Charles. Blood is thicker than water, even when those blood relations are scandalous.

The climax of the book involves a tornado that brings everyone together even as it tears the countryside apart. Did that “work” for you as a reader? What did you think of the chaotic family reunion when even the girls’ mother and their father and stepmother all appear?

Janie: It will take something dramatic to bring all these scattered family members together, so the tornado works because it has to work! I’ll admit I never liked the girls’ mother, because so many things (chiefly the Civil Rights movement) seem more important to her than them. Cecile doesn’t win me over in this book, but at least she shows up. And I like that the girls’–especially Delphine’s–resentment toward their stepmother begins to soften at the end. Though some characters may seem overdrawn at first, their humanity grows on you. The resolution doesn’t feel forced. Also, though the Civil Rights movement affects these characters deeply, it doesn’t define them. That’s the sense you get in a lot of novels with African-American characters—they’re all about the struggle. Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern make us hopeful that there is life beyond a history of oppression.

Betsy: Well said, Janie. This book, more than any other in the series, celebrates true diversity: not just racial or ethnic diversity, but the diversity that happens even within blood relations. At the end, the unity we see is not artificial, but one that is growing and emerging in the midst of the unique individuals within this family.

Next week we hope to get to Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans.  Other Newbery-buzz books we’ve talked about are Most Dangerous, The Nest, and The Thing about JellyfishBe sure and watch for our Newbery predictions early in January!

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