Poet and novelist Ntozake Shange would seem uniquely qualified to join the growing ranks of acclaimed authors releasing their first Young Adult novels, since many of her more successful endeavors notably, Betsey Brown (about school integration in 1959 St. Louis) are essentially coming-of-age tales. In Daddy Says, her young protagonists, 12-year-old Lucie Marie and 14-year-old Annie Sharon Johnson-Brown of East Texas, occupy the somewhat rarefied world of the African-American rodeo circuit. Their mother, Twanda, was a champion right up until her favorite horse trampled her to death. Many years have passed (Lucie Marie barely remembers her mom), yet their father, Tie-Down, is still struggling with his grief, his cluelessness when it comes to parenting daughters ("Daddy don't truck with no personal stuff," says Annie Sharon, "especially girl stuff.") and a growing romantic interest that's bound to shake up the family dynamic.
Annie Sharon, out of loyalty to her mother's memory, wants no truck with her father's intended, the perfectly unobjectionable, kind and caring Cassie. To win Annie Sharon's trust, Cassie knows she'll have to tame her gradually, by degrees much as Annie Sharon wishes she could reclaim her mother's wild and headstrong horse, Macondo. Annie Sharon's quest with Macondo, however, is characterized by an adolescent's impetuousness and delusions of omnipotence, and she undertakes it to disastrous effect. Tie-Down's initial impulse is to punish. Luckily, Cassie's on hand to intercede and help guide the family back toward wholeness.
The novel has its awkward one might even say adolescent moments: bits of exposition clumsily shoehorned into dialogue, as well as a tendency toward melodrama. It's as if Shange, in trying to adhere too closely to the conventions of the genre, has cut herself off from the leaps of imagination and the wide-ranging imagery that inform her previous work. Her passion for the story's milieu, though, shines through. The best passages in Daddy Says vividly convey the near-transcendental pleasure possible when horse and rider become as one. Sandy MacDonald is a freelance writer based in Cambridge and Nantucket, Massachusetts.