review: Leaving Gee’s Bend

Posted on 14 February 2010 Sunday

book review: Leaving Gee’s Bend

author: Irene Latham

date: Jan, 2010; Putnam Juvenile

The weakness of this book begins with the title and continues through the last page. Is the focus of the book supposed to be on Ludelphia leaving Gee’s Bend as the title implies? I never could figure out what the focal event was supposed to be. I’m sure there’s a literary term for that, but I’m not sure of it right now! I mean, what was the main problem that was driving the story? It was NOT Ludelphia’s leaving (why didn’t they call her Ludie?) because that part of the story felt like more of a distraction and it wasn’t whether her mom would live or die. I think the author decided mom would live before she even began the book and she neglected to build any suspense over this important event that spanned the book. I never felt reason to have concern about the mother’s survival. From reading the book and the author’s note at the end, I think she read about the event in 1932 when the owner of the mercantile in Camden died and his wife had executors of his estate collect everything they could from his debtors. The Red Cross then made meager donations to the citizens of Gees Bend. I really think this event was was the compelling event.

Events rather than characters drove this story and because of that, the characters were poorly developed. They were so poorly developed that they felt like objects the author moved through the story rather than real life human beings with thoughts, relationships and emotions. Examine the first scene of the book when the mother (we don’t learn her first name) is quite heavy with child and bending over in pain from heavy coughs. Ludelphia (I hate that name!) starts thinking about her mule and the geography of Gee’s Bend rather than finding some way to comfort her mother. The author doesn’t seem to care about the characters and her disconnect causes the reader to have little care or concern either. When Mom does prematurely deliver her baby, none of the neighboring women come to tend to her or care for the family. I find this so odd in a community like Gee’s Bend, but this book is void of elements of community life in Gee’s Bend. I also found it odd that Ludelphia had no curiosity about the new technologies she encountered in Camden: the mirror, carpet, the car, inside plumbing… She easily figured out these things and didn’t explore them. A 10 year old child who doesn’t explore?? It was extremely discomforting that Ludelphia never comforted her mother, talked to her or combed her hair, but she would nuzzle that mule, think about her with affection and she tears over it. No one cleaned or tended to mom while she was ill and the author had to point this out by making an issue of the smell! Why didn’t Ludelphia tend to her mother when she returned home?

For some reason, this didn’t read like a MG book to me. I can’t put my finger on what it was. The pacing was off for a MG book and attention was paid to the wrong sorts of details. 7th graders don’t want that much detail about childbirth! They’d want oohing and ahhing over the baby. They’d need to see concern for a mother and new born baby! Today, this would be a fourth grader and even today a child that age would not take it upon herself to cross a river to get a doctor that her father told her not to get and it certainly would not have happened in the 1930’s when parents were parents, and children were children who knew their place and did not disobey their parents. She had insights that were well beyond her years, like when she says something about life fitting together like pieces of a quilt.

Ah, yes, the quilts. I’m a quilter. Can I first tell you that buying fabric for quilts is a recent luxury? Gee’s Bends quilters wouldn’t have even thought of that and a child would not have ripped the sash off her mother’s apron! Quilts to Gee’s Bend was work and necessity. IF Ludelphia really wanted to make a quilt for her mother, we would have read her contemplating the textures and colors of the quilt pieces and she would have been imagining the pattern of her quilt. I don’t know that she would have kept a needle in her pocket!!

Now, just a few inconsistencies, some which may just be stuff I missed along the way because I was so disappointed in this book, I didn’t take the greatest care in reading it. I’m pretty sure there is a Creole language in Gee’s Bend, so why wasn’t it in the book? Why did Ludelphia spend so much time with the doctor and his wife and how did she get back across the river? What happened to the first bottle of morphine? Why did the father get so upset with Ludelphia for letting Etta into the house when no one told her not to? Am I really to believe that Ludelphia’s father (did he have a name?) would have been able to read? I was a bit surprised even that Ludelphia was reading and writing. And who puts cinnamon in pound cake?

And then, there is the matter of race. Race is barely in this book about African Americans in a uniquely African American setting. This unique culture is not described. The poverty of Gee’s Bend is barely contrasted to the life in Camden, the frustrations of sharecropping is not mentioned in fact, we’re made to think that the white men who sold goods on credit really were kinda nice! All the white characters in the book were kinda nice, weren’t they? Well, then there was Mrs. Cobb but she was ill, with good reason to be mean. (That sentence is so full of sarcasm!) So, if all these people were so nice, why was there a separate waiting room in the doctor’s office? Why were there no cars in Gee’s Bend? Why was there such a disconnect between the two cities? Why wouldn’t the doctor go see this dying Black woman and why on earth would his wife give a 10 year old girl two bottles of morphine and tell her to give her mom just a small teaspoonful every now and then and not go see this sick woman herself?

Overall, I’ll just say YUCK: poor writing with careless attention to detail no character development.

To me, this book exemplifies the criticism that has surrounded Gee’s Bend in recent years. I think we’ll call it ‘intellectual gentrification’. The story of Gee’s Bend and its culture, which includes its language, music and quilts were not important to America until White people ‘discovered’ it. And here we have this book void of Gee’s Bend culture where main characters don’t even have names getting published where so many other well written, well documented books by authors of color are not.

Again, I say YUCK

disclaimer: publisher’s ARC

Posted in: Book Reviews