Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Leaving Gee's Bend by Irene Latham

Sometimes you read a book that you just can't get into but yet, when you've finished it, you crave more. Leaving Gee's Bend by Irene Latham did exactly that for me.

Ludelphia Bennett lives on a sharecropping farm in Gee's Bend, Alabama. The time is 1932, but this isn't a story focused wholly on the Great Depression; instead, this is a story of Ludelphia trying to help her mother overcome an illness. Because Gee's Bend is African American and because this is a time of challenges and because this is a story set in the South before Civil Rights, you can bet there's not a doctor in town.

When Mama has a coughing fit so hard she goes into labor with Rose, Ludelphia decides to head to the next biggest town -- Camden -- which is across the river by ferry. But things go terribly, terribly wrong and the wife of the farm where Ludelphia's family sharecrops is not happy. She's so unhappy, she seeks her revenge.

Will Ludelphia be able to find a doctor for her mother? Will little Rose survive? Will the family lose everything they have?

Interwoven into the story line is the story of quilting. Mama loved to quilt and taught Ludelphia the same. This act and the symbolism behind it cement the story of Gee's Bend and the story of family and struggle.

For me, the story's pace was a bit uneven: at the beginning, I felt the story moved too slowly, but the end of the story moved far too quickly for me. I loved the setting and wish I could have gotten more flavor for Gee's Bend; this is precisely one of the reasons I liked this book -- I'm very compelled to go learn more about the area. Thanks to the author, I've got a list of resources in the back to whet my appetite for it, too. I found the subplot involving the Red Cross, which we come to find out at the end is a big thrust of the story, comes very late into the novel and isn't quite developed enough. I think this could have been pushed further throughout to make it stronger and more powerful.

I'm not a big historical fiction fan, but the setting and time period for this one were engaging and unique. Although the story is set in the age of the Depression, developing a plot around an African American family was memorable and one that's very underplayed in the grand world of fiction (not just teen fiction - I mean all of it).

Ludelphia's voice felt like that of a 10-year-olds, and I felt that for the most part, her age and her actions were spot on. I thought some of the resolutions were too tidy to be accomplished by a character her age, but the fact this is a story set in a time where children were expected to be adults early on makes it believable.

Leaving Gee's Bend sets itself apart from the growing field of middle grade novels. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say this might be a title you hear about come next year when awards are around. Although not as intricately detailed as Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, I kind of felt like I was reading a similar story. These books arouse a sense of comfort with them, perhaps one triggered by the fondness of historic places or stories (Latham's author's note mentions this and how a quilting exhibit in New York spurred her to write the book).

Although I thought the quilting metaphor was done well, I wanted more. I think it could have been pushed a bit further and emphasized a little more to really pack a punch at the end.

While it's not one of my personal favorites, this is a book with merits. I think it might be a tough sell to kids because it's a historical fiction, but this is one that would work wonderfully in a classroom unit on the 1930s, culturalism or regionalism in America, or even art/crafts. Because there's enough adventure and not too much stress on emotions and feelings, boys might enjoy this one, as well. For kids who love historical fiction, this is a home run. I appreciated that the book was much shorter than others of this ilk, which may itself make it one kids would be more open to trying.

On the very superficial level, I LOVE the cover. We have a person of color who, while faceless, captures the essence of the story perfectly. This one's memorable.

Needless to say, you can bet I'm going to track down some of these other titles about Gee's Bend. What a neat story to share that will raise awareness and interest in a place so many know so little about.

* I got an advanced copy of this from the publisher. They don't expect a good review, and I sure hope you've figured out by now that I'm not afraid to be honest. But a good book review will give you both the good and the bad. I'm still not sold on writing these disclaimers, and I'm not afraid to tell you that.

3 comments:

  1. I love the cover, too. The type style is perfect for this cover. The color is unusual. The addition of a block of textured color doesn't clash (as it sometimes does) with the photo.
    Given the current controversy over people of color on book jackets, it's nice to see here... though I think we need to see faces sometimes too.
    Unlike you, my preference is for historical fiction - I'll be looking for this!

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  2. When you read it, the lack of face makes sense. I would love for more covers to feature AVERAGE PEOPLE OF COLOR. Not super models.

    This was a fun book. If you're a fan of historical fiction, this will be right up your alley.

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  3. Thank you for putting into words what I was feeling about this book. "Too tidy" is spot on, and I agree that the book also has many merits. Perhaps she is an author to watch.

    A reader in Birmingham

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