One Crazy Summer is brilliant for a lot of reasons, but my post-it flags came out because of the way Rita Williams-Garcia uses the idea of gaze to construct her protagonist’s world. In first person narration, we see the world as the protagonist sees it, and that’s revelatory—but we also learn a lot from the way the protagonist feels when the world gazes back at her. We see this all the time with romance plot-lines—where the hot boy looks at the narrator-girl, and suddenly the girl catalogues her perceived physical flaws for us. (Actually, I dare say we’ve seen that so much that we don’t need to see it any more.) But in Williams-Garcia’s hands, the use of gaze is far more complex.
One Crazy Summer is about eleven-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, who travel to Oakland in the summer of 1968 to see the mother who’d abandoned them years before. With Delphine as your guide, you realize that to be an African- American girl in 1968 you are constantly aware of the white people who are or might be looking at you, and what they see when they do. When they go to their gate at the airport in the beginning of the book, Delphine notices, “There weren’t too many of ‘us’ in the wait area, and too many of ‘them’ were staring.” On the plane, Delphine tries to keep her sisters in line, telling us, “The last thing Pa and Big Ma wanted to hear was how we made a grand Negro spectacle of ourselves thirty thousand feet up in the air around all these white people.”
Delphine’s job is to watch over her sisters, and in the scenes her eyes are constantly on them. In her narration, she barely focuses on herself; it makes sense, as the eldest, she’s valued for being a surrogate parent to the other girls. Their mother Cecile doesn’t take any of this burden away from Delphine; she barely looks at the girls, and certainly doesn’t ever see them for who they are. The only time she looks at Delphine is to intimidate her; when Delphine rebels against the nightly greasy Chinese take-out by bringing home food to cook, her mother stares at her, long and hard. “If that was supposed to make me feel afraid, stupid, and small,” Delphine tells us, “It worked.”
Whenever the sisters venture out, they have to deal with the gaze of others, whether it’s the white people with cameras who want to take the girls’ picture because they are “adorable dolls” and “so well-behaved.” Or the shop keeper who sets his eyes on them as soon as they walk into his shop; at first, Delphine thinks it’s because they are kids alone in his store, but then she realizes, “His hard stare was for the other reasons store clerks’ eyes never let up. We were black kids, and he expected us to steal.”
When the book begins, Delphine’s voice feels child-like and immediate; when the girls are on the plane to Oakland she’s terrified, and she tells us, “It was bad enough my insides squeezed in and stretched out like a monkey grinder’s accordion.” She refuses to show her fear, for the sake of her sisters. Through the book, Delphine is conscious of the image she’s projecting for everyone else to see; only we can see the scared little girl underneath it.
But as the book goes on, the voice grows a little more mature, and the narration a little more distant, as if the narrator-Delphine is now an older girl looking back on these events. You feel the separation between the two Delphines—as kid-Delphine lives through the story you become more and more aware of the older girl remembering them. Somehow this makes you love Delphine even more; now you have a sense of the girl she will become, the one who lived through this summer and grew from it. Or maybe it’s just because the narrator gives kid-Delphine what you’re longing for for her–finally, someone sees her. Though the girl in the scenes doesn’t know it, her older self is with her the entire time, promising her that she’s understood, that she’s seen.
And, we learn, it isn’t just by her older self. At the end of the summer, Cecile sits Delphine down and haltingly tells her her own life story. “I wasn’t used to having her attention,” Delphine tells us. “Having her look at me and talk. All the while she spoke, she didn’t lift her eyes from me.”
When she takes the girls back to the airport, a white man stops them and tries to take their picture, cooing “Pretty girls, smile pretty!” Cecile puts a stop to it, standing in front of the girls and snapping at the man, ”They’re not monkeys on display.” Delphine tells us, “I felt bad for him, but I knew Cecile had to step in. Any mother would have at least done that.”
When they leave to board the plane, Delphine says, “I expected Cecile to walk away. To cut through the terminal in man-sized strides as soon as we got up and stood on-line. When I turned to see if she had gone, she was standing only a few feet away, looking straight at me. It was a strange, wonderful feeling. To discover eyes upon you when you expected no one to notice you at all.”
This is a fabulous book, one of the best middle grades in recent memory. It’s constructed so delicately and carefully, with voice and narration acting as a complex mediator between the reader, the girl living through this summer, and the girl she will become. Take a look.