The year is 1968 and the novel follows three young black girls from Brooklyn, New York. Their father flies them out to Oakland, California to spend the summer with their mother, Cecile Johnson, who’s a poet. “One Crazy Summer” won the Coretta Scott King Award for 2011 because titles like this one “promote understanding and appreciation of the culture of all peoples and their contribution to the realization of the American dream of a pluralistic society.”
The story follows 11 year old Delphine and her two younger sisters, Vonetta, named after jazz singer, Sarah Vaughan and Fern. Delphine narrates and tells us that their mother abandoned them and their father when Fern was just a baby. Their grandmother, Big Ma, left Alabama to help see to them. When the girls arrive in Oakland, their reception by their mother, upon seeing her three daughters for the first time in seven years is met with indifference. No hugs or tears at this reunion.
Their mother, Cecile Johnson is a poet who writers under the name, Nzila. When Delphine sees her for the first time, she says she looks like “Mata Hari” with her big shades covering her eyes. Delphine’s memories of her are fragmented. She remembers her writing her poetry on the walls, on cereal boxes. We learn a little about Cecile’s life in Oakland. She stays in a green stucco house. Just about everything in it is second hand. She occasionally does fliers and artwork for The Black Panthers, a black organization that rose to prominence in the U.S. during the 1960’s and 70’s, whose platform was mainly defending oppressed people. Her workspace is her kitchen where she keeps her printing press and supplies. She doesn’t allow the girls in there and she keeps to herself.
Every morning the girls go the People’s Center for breakfast because their mother doesn’t cook. It’s a community center run by the Panthers. It’s there that they make friends and become involved in the black power movement by painting posters, handing out fliers and participating in a rally. The kids are taught about the leaders of the Panthers, Huey P. Newton (jailed at the time this story takes place) and Bobby Seale. Outside of the Center which becomes their daily routine, Delphine plans for them to go see the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. That pretty much rounded out their summer activities.
Mother is a statement of fact. Cecile Johnson gave birth to us. We came out of Cecile Johnson. In the animal kingdom that makes her our mother, dead or alive. Ran off or stayed put. Cecile Johnson–mammal birth giver, alive, an abandoner–is our mother. A statement of fact. Delphine
The heart of the story is the girls trying to understand and re-establish a relationship with their mother who is completely unapproachable and an enigma. She doesn’t want the girls there; she feels their presence invades her privacy and space. But their father thought differently which is why he sent them. Delphine is brave and smart. She watches the nightly news and reads to her sisters. She’s always looking out for her sisters and calming them down when things get scary even when she’s scared herself. The girls often squabble; each of the girls have their own distinctive personality. One thing they always do is look to Delphine to keep them safe. Since they grew up without a mother, Delphine has had to grow up a little faster. I think even though she’s depicted as someone with more responsibility than your typical eleven year old, she still acts her age.
Cecile comes across as someone who is struggling to find herself. She grew up hard on the streets. She expresses herself through her poetry. It’s no surprise that the girls recite one of their mother’s poems, “I Birthed A Nation” at a rally that finally brings them a bit closer. It also opens up dialogue and leads to the “discussion” that Delphine has yearned to have with her mother, like why did she abandon them? I’m happy to say that Cecile does warm up a bit by the story’s close. From the way she started, it would take more than four weeks for Cecile to be the mother that Delphine & the girls yearn to have.
One other thing I forgot to mention when I first published this review is that Cecile refuses to call Fern by her name. Instead she calls her “Little Girl.” Names seem to be important in here because Delphine is highly upset that her name was not chosen for her like Vonetta’s and Fern’s. You see, the girls were told that their mother left because she couldn’t name Fern. It seems rather silly. Well, we learn the truth about Fern’s name later in the story because it seems like Fern is the one who will take after her mother.
When I finished reading, I was left with a heavy heart. One of happiness and sadness. More happiness though. It’s not so much the writing that blew me away but it was the feelings and meaning underneath the words and the actions of the characters and what they’ve had to endure and witness during this turbulent political climate for change. Also, it’s this time period and the struggles for freedom for all men and women of color. It was like going back in time and watching these kids who were apart of the history some of us only know about from family or friends who lived through it.
I’m very glad to have read this book. It is a book that grew on me the more I read it The ending: touching and heartfelt. It ended on the right note. Hope more people will give this book a try. I labeled this book for young readers but the story has crossover appeal for adults as well. It’s a story of three girls who meet their mother for the first time. It’s about one crazy summer where the girls along with their mother learn something about each other. It’s also a story according to the author “for those children who witnessed and were apart of necessary change. Yes. There were children.” B+.