Saturday, May 8, 2010

My take on: the darkest child

I had to go to Atlanta to find this diamond in the rough. I'm sure I could have found this book at my local Borders, but since the story is set in Pakersfield, Georgia it made sense that his book was on prominent display.

This is Delores Phillips' debut novel, and after reading it I'm stunned at the graphic details and emotion that come out. As the story opens it is 1958, and we meet 13-year-old Tangy Mae and her mother Rozelle 'Rosie' Quinn in rural Georgia. This was a time when opportunities for African Americans were few and far between. Rozelle is in the midst of quitting her job as a maid and tells anyone who will listen that she is about to die. All nine of her children seriously doubt that. Rozelle would rather have people think she's about to die, than admit being pregnant with her 10th child.

Now that her mother can't work, Tangy Mae is expected to quit school and start supporting the family. More than anything Tangy Mae wants to graduate from high school and break free from her mother. To some in the community Rozelle is just a single mother trying to do right. But in her children's eyes, Rozelle is a monster. Any attempt at freedom is met with abuse. Tangy Mae's older sister Martha Jean, who is deaf, finds someone to love her but Rozelle beats her into submission upon finding out. Martha Jean's freedom is granted only after her future husband -- Velman -- is able to give Rozelle a car and driving lessons in exchange. A young Tangy Mae was branded with a fire poker for questioning her mother's authority. Their older sister, Mushy, ran away because she couldn't take the abuse anymore. Tangy Mae and her older sister, Tarabelle, are forced into prostitution by Rozelle, just so their mother can keep up her expensive shopping habits. Tangy Mae's brothers are spared some of the abuse because they bring money into the household. Her brothers also try to change things in their community, but are only met with resistance from the white authority figures in town.

Tangy Mae is made to believe that no one will ever want her because of her dark skin. Rozelle drilled into her children that the lighter your skin color, the more desirable you are. Whatever affection Rozelle did show, it was usually to her children with lighter skin.

There are moments when it feels like this novel is preaching about the ills of the racism in the 1950s, but as a whole it's about young children trying to break free of an abusive mother. Without giving away too much, the ending left me a little empty. Within the last few pages you get the feeling that Tangy Mae and her siblings are finally going to get their happy ending. But Phillips shakes their resolve and makes them doubt their futures.

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