Last week Thursday was MMB's 14th birthday, and we'd gone to Bigbears to eat baked chicken wings (Bigbear makes the best damn chicken wings on the planet. I don't know how she does it cuz mine never come out like that) and salad stuff and kiss MMB.
I picked up this book that Bigbear had just been reading; she said it was pretty "horrible" and wasn't sure I'd enjoy it. I glanced at the first chapter and got sucked in immediately. I didn't put it down until I finished it. I even read in bed. I can't tell you the last time I did that.
I don't like "soupy" emotional books. I guess I don't really like "soupy" emotional anything, which is probably why "the darkest child" by Delores Phillips gripped me. SoHo Press, the publisher has the following synopsis on their webpage:
Rozelle Quinn is so fair-skinned that she can pass for white. Yet everyone in her small Georgia town knows. Rozelle's ten children (by ten different daddies) are mostly light, too. They sleep on the floor in her drafty, rickety three-room shack and live in fear of her moods and temper. But they are all vital to her. They occupy the only world she rules and controls. They multiply her power in an otherwise cruel and uncaring universe.
Rozelle favors her light-skinned kids, but insists that they all love and obey her unquestioningly. Tangy Mae, thirteen, is her brightest but darkest-complected child. Tangy wants desperately to continue with her education. Shockingly, the highest court in the land has just ruled that Negroes may go to school with whites. Her mother, however, has other plans.
Rozelle wants her daughter to work, cleaning houses for whites, like she does, and accompany her to the "Farmhouse," where Rozelle earns extra money bedding men. Tangy Mae, she's decided, is of age.
Huh. That doesn't even begin to describe the horror. The fact that Tangy (I'm guessing it's pronounced "TAN-gee" since she's often called "Tan" for short) is the darkest child (until a new baby comes along) is almost incidental, and the fact that she is most often the recipient of her mother's almost random acts of violence is also almost incidental.
Ms. Phillips gets the story going, and you're rolling along in it and suddenly something out of the blue happens that takes your breath away. And then she just keeps on rolling. The thing is, abuse is like that. It's how you get sucked in so easily. It becomes normal and you don't realize the depth of the horror until you've managed to step away.
But it's not just the description of abuse and manipulation of an obviously disturbed parent over her children that makes the book so gripping. It's the way Ms. Phillips describes everything... the shack the kids live in, the town, the 1950's racism the children are confronted with daily, the abject poverty, how people's lives in a small town intertwine with each other yet fall apart, how hopelessness and despair become so ordinary that you can survive it. Even if you think you can't. And how something in you, something unexplainable and quiet, keeps you moving ever forward. And how sometimes, it doesn't... sometimes people just never overcome.
But despite the intensity of the images you'll see in your mind's eye, Ms. Phillips is so matter-of-fact about everything, so dry, that it makes the horror easy to bear. It's a strange thing. I'd taken a peek at "The Secret Life of Bees" cuz Fatlady was reading it, and while I still think I may read that book, I would describe it as "wet"... very lucid and flowing, as if the pain could drown you. "The darkest child" is dry... dry as a mummy.
This seems to have been Ms. Phillips first--and possibly only--book cuz I can't seem to find anything else on her. But if you have the chance, you should read it. But I warn you; it's intense.