When she began to write her eighth novel, Rita Williams-Garcia decided to try something different. “Every writer should get a little antsy once they get too familiar with the worlds they create—if that happens, you’re not working hard enough, and there’s not enough in it for you as a writer,” she says in an interview from her home in Queens, New York. “I have a very different background from the kids I tend to write about, so I thought, for a change, why not tap into the childhood I did have?”
And so she did, setting One Crazy Summer on the West Coast rather than in her usual locale of New York City. “My sister, brother and I were always amusing ourselves in the wide-open spaces of Seaside, California. I was determined to have the three girls in my story run around outside in California in the 1960s, too.”
Eleven-year-old Delphine and younger sisters Vonetta and Fern live in Brooklyn with their father, Papa, and grandmother, Big Ma. The adults decide to have the girls spend the summer of 1968 in Oakland, California, with their mother, Cecile, who left them after Fern was born. Big Ma has never forgiven her, but Papa prevails, and off they go.
The scenes depicting the girls at airports are just a few of the many moments in One Crazy Summer wherein the author’s gift for combining everyday settings with social commentary and wry wit make for memorable, but not heavy-handed, reading. Delphine rolls her eyes (and bites her tongue) when she and her sisters are stared at as if “on display at the Bronx Zoo,” and the girls engage in what Williams-Garcia calls “colored counting.” It’s an activity she and her siblings “did everywhere. It was a time when, in public places, you might not see a lot of African-American people. We’d count how many of us were there, how many words we got to say on TV.”
These small but telling moments are the ones that most interest Williams-Garcia. “Usually I don’t like to do ‘the race book’ because it’s not how people live,” she says. “Not to say racism doesn’t exist, but it’s not this moment-to-moment consciousness. I like to include the domestic, intimate things about race and identity that never really make it into books or media—you mainly get big or dramatic events of racism, violence or discrimination.”
Thus, when none other than the Black Panthers become part of the sisters’ everyday lives, there aren’t cinematic goings-on at every turn. Sure, the girls initially are anxious when Cecile sends them on all-day visits to the Panthers-run community center, where they have free breakfast and learn about the group’s political causes and views. And the political rally at book’s end certainly is exciting.
But in between, the children develop friendships and enjoy being part of something larger than themselves, even if they understand only some of what’s going on at the center. Cecile keeps a printing press for the Panthers in her kitchen, which she fiercely protects as her own space for working, thinking and writing her poetry.
Cecile and the other women in One Crazy Summer—smart, strong, often unrepentant—are in many ways like Williams-Garcia’s own late mother, whose influence was central to another change in approach for the author. Her previous work—including the 2009 National Book Award Finalist Jumped—“always seemed to mourn the loss of childhood,” she says. This time, “I decided to celebrate my experiences. My mother was the super-mother of all mothers; she made it clear there was only one woman in her house, and my sister and I did not qualify.”
With that in mind, she wanted to have a chasm between mother and children in One Crazy Summer. “I respect the difference between parent and child. Delphine and her sisters haven’t earned their mother’s story, and she hasn’t earned their forgiveness.”
Ultimately, what is attainable for Cecile and her children is a truce of sorts, one characterized by hope for mother and daughters, as well as the America they’re living in.
As for Williams-Garcia, herself the mother of two daughters, she’s hoping to challenge herself even more via her next book, a gaming novel: “I’m estrogen-ed out—it’s time for me to write about a boy.”
Linda M. Castellitto writes from North Carolina.