Eleven-year-old Nellie Lee Love is the light-skinned sister and confidant to her darker and 10-months-older sister, Erma Jean. In the spring of 1919 when their uncle's murder is covered up, Erma Jean becomes unable to speak and is sent north to Chicago to see if physicians can cure her "hysteria." Soon afterwards their father decides that Chicago would offer more opportunities for a Colored family than Tennessee and the family moves north.
This upper elementary school book by Patricia McKissack, is a part of the Dear America series and written in diary format. Nellie's voice is authentic as she struggles with her uncle's death and her sister's silence; moving from a rural small southern town to a big northern city; and her desire to "Color me dark," so her light skin won't mark her as different than other Coloreds.
I was particularly interested in Nellie's observations about skin color. I appreciated her innocent confusion when her best friend gets her hair "fixed" and doesn't want it to "go back" to being kinky. A reference to her sister wanting a skin product that will lighten her skin was poignant: their mother's response is to "Live in the skin you are in." After Erma Jean starts to talk again, Nellie tries to protect her from being ostracized for not having "prettier" light skin. To her credit, Erma Jean speaks up for herself and says, "Being black is not a bad thing. When you try to push me off on people, you make me feel even worse." (p. 170)
If anything, I would have liked to see more tension between the girls over the differences between them. Erma Jean was more comfortable with her skin color and Nellie was less accepting of the fact that she was light-skinned. I missed not seeing Nellie learn how to live in her own skin.
McKissack expertly wove the history of this tumultuous period into this novel. Important people (W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett); events (the Great Migration, The Chicago Riot); organizations and periodicals (The Provident Hospital, NAACP, and The Crisis) are referenced throughout this story and further explained in the Historical Note.
The Epilogue continues the story with comments on both girls' adult lives. The statement that Erma Jean became a well-known poet and playwright and Nellie Lee worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt led me to believe that the characters were actual people from history. I was startled when I read in the Author's Note that, "Even though the characters in this are fictional, their story is a real one." I think there is always a fine line when writing historical fiction and I thought the inclusion of an epilogue that reads as if it is history was confusing. Nevertheless, I would definitely recommend this book for use in upper elementary classrooms when studying the history of the early 20th century.
Friday, January 25, 2013
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