Diane McKinney-Whetstone has made a career out of documenting the lives of ordinary African Americans, mostly women trying to get by in Philadelphia. (She seems to be to women from Philly what August Wilson was to men from Pittsburgh.) In Trading Dreams at Midnight, the sorrows of one generation are passed down to the next.

The novel tells the story of Nan; her beloved but disturbed daughter, Freeda; and Freeda's two daughters, the restless Neena and the stable and successful Tish. Freeda has never been quite right. Nan blames herself, since she believes she won Freeda's father's love through a potion and their daughter's strange mood swings are her punishment. Freeda's mental illness leads her to drop in and out of her mother's life, and, eventually, to abandon her girls to be raised by Nan. While both sisters are wounded by their mother's abandonment, Neena, who makes her living ripping off gullible men, finds Freeda's loss unbearable, and dedicates her life to finding her again. Tish, on the other hand, marries a good man, has a great job as a TV newswoman, and is soon to be a mother herself.

Once again McKinney-Whetstone writes with empathy, compassion and discernment, even if her characters aren't the nicest people to know. Neena may be a con artist, but her raw pain is described with devastating accuracy. Nan may be rigid, but she's a good woman capable of great love. At the book's end she learns something that both releases her and breaks her heart, and there are hints that this vicious circle of pain just might come to an end. Trading Dreams at Midnight is a beautifully written and poignant work about the power and limitations of family love.

Arlene McKanic writes from South Carolina.

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