Although I've never met Sundee Frazier in person, I feel as if I know her. When I first started researching Half-Truths, I read her autobiographical book, Check All That Apply: Finding Wholeness as a Multiracial Person (InterVarsity, 2002. The daughter of a white mother and a Black father, Sundee wrote candidly about her struggles to fit in, to feel accepted as a multiracial person, and how her Christian faith helped her in her journey to wholeness.
Fast forward several years, and Sundee wrote The Other Half of My Heart (Random House, 2010) about twin girls--one who is "milky white" and the other is "cinnamon brown." Their Black grandmother insists that both girls enter the Black Pearls of America pageant--which produces high drama for both girls! (Click here for my interview with Sundee about this book and how she mined her life to write it.)
Sundee's most recent book, Mighty Inside (Levine Querido October, 2021) also draws from her own life--this time most specifically about her father's and grandparents' experiences in Spokane, Washington in 1955. After you read my review, please click on the video. Sundee and her family share some of the stories that informed this wonderful middle grade novel.
(Please see Sundee's website for her other children's books.)
Every time he opened his mouth, his words backed away like a kid afraid to jump off the high dive--running to the end and then stopping, over and over--until he could feel the pulsing of an artery in his forehead. His tongue felt as heavy and solid as a brick. (p. 17)
That's how Melvin Robinson describes his "traitor mouth" that trips over "sticky" letters like "T" "P" or "B." It's the Stutter that has been with him ever since he was a little kid; the mouth that prevents him from speaking his mind; the tongue that will embarrass him as he enters high school.
He makes it through his first day of school with one big accomplishment: he meets Lenny--a talkative, Jewish, white sax player who sticks to Melvin like a burr. But, as Melvin finds out, Lenny ends up being the best friend a kid could have.
As the book progresses, Sundee skillfully weaves in backstory. Melvin overhears an argument between Melvin's father and his Uncle T.:
"Why you think that boy got that stutter? 'Cause he's surrounded by all these white folks, that's why. You shouldn't be here. You should be on the east side. Or do you think you're too good for that?"
Pops had crossed a line. Was Melvin suffering because of it?" (p. 52)
School is a mixture of pain with some spots of pleasure. Despite faithfully doing his tongue exercises, Melvin messes up frequently--and is teased by several bullies. But, his day is brightened by brief glimpses and interactions with his crush, Millie, a Japanese American. Science (taught by a veteran who lost a hand in WWII) and choir are highlights. When he sings the Stutter never appears.
But where Melvin really begins to shine, is playing accordion alongside of Lenny. The two become so good that Lenny convinces Melvin that they should try out for a television show featuring local kid performers. Although Melvin is scared, he realizes that his accordion speaks better than he does.
I don't want to include any spoilers, so I'll just say:
- I really appreciated how Sundee threads Melvin's Christianity--as well as his questions into the novel. During a stressful time, Melvin recites portions of Psalm 23. Although he wonders why God gave him a "broken tongue," his faith helps him conquer his fears.
- Other plot points about Emmett Till, Lenny's father, and Millie's experience in Japanese internment camps enrich the book.
- I liked the metaphor of the "walls" of prejudice that Melvin keeps running into.
- And finally, just like Jackie in Joyce Hostetter's latest novel, Equal, Melvin also discovers:
He knew he would get stuck on some of his words, and it was all right. He had decided the best way to deal with an enemy, if he could, was to make that enemy his friend. The Sutter was a part of what made him him and he was okay. Just the way he was. (p.229)