Tuesday, July 19, 2011

One of these things just doesn't belong

I am five books behind (I blame the summer doldrums -- even though it's hardly summer here -- but it's more likely True Blood!). I finished Sundee T. Frazier's The Other Half of My Heart last month, so my recollections might be a little spotty. I've liked both of her books, if for no other reason than they are about biracial kids without the attendant tragedy that accompanies so many books featuring African American children. Frazier always puts conflict in her novels -- conflict that arises from being biracial -- but for the most part, Brendan Buckley (from her 2008 John Steptoe New Talent Award winner) and the twin sisters of this story are just ordinary kids. Kids that most kids go to school with.

Minni and Keira King were born in their father's airplane just minutes after landing. They are famous for this in their small town on the Olympic Peninsula, but they are more famous because Minni is completely white in appearance (taking after her Irish-American father) while Keira is black in appearance. This hasn't affected the love between the sisters and their parents, but for Minni, at least, a slow understanding of the wider world is dawning. When Minni (whose story this is) is with her mother and sister, she feels like the odd person -- sadly singing Sesame Street's "One of These Things is Not Like the Other" to herself -- but she also witnesses the different, and disrespectful, treatment Keira receives at a local dress shop.

When the twins' African American grandmother signs them up to participate in the Miss Black Pearl Preteen of America beauty pageant ... er, scholarship program in North Carolina, extrovert Keira is thrilled. Minni is horrified, but isn't given the option to not participate. As the girls spend a few weeks alone with their proud, but old-fashioned Grandmother Johnson-Payne, Minni gets a first hand look at some unexpected discrimination: their grandmother pronounces Minni's hair to be "good" and admonishes Keira to stay out of the sun so she won't get any darker and some of the other contestants question Minni's right to participate. The repercussions of her exposure to this discrimination threatens the relationship that Minni holds most dear.

I thought this book was a gentle exploration of racial prejudice in all its forms. Frazier doesn't explain it all, although Grandmother Johnson-Payne does try to make the girls understand why she wants Keira to have a less "black" appearance. It's a little preachy, but to me, its main fault is that we never learn how Keira feels. Like most (all?) black kids, Keira has experienced discrimination and has swallowed the feelings of anger and resentment that entails. But in Frazier's characterization, Keira seems almost a cipher in her happy-go-lucky focus on winning the pageant. There's a few moments when she breaks out (most memorably in a beauty salon where she's going to have her hair relaxed), and I wanted to hear more. Instead the novel goes back to Minni's interior dialogue of quiet anxiety. I suppose you could argue that making Keira the protagonist is not the book Frazier wished to write. Also, this is definitely the adult reader -- who wants to be able to share more books about black protagonists -- talking.

Bahni Turpin reads this novel. This is not the showcase that the last novel I heard her read was, but she gives an enjoyable performance here (not every book can have J.Lo!). Turpin's voice is appropriately youthful and giggly for Minni and Keira (as well as the other pageant ... er, program contestants), but she also does a great job with Grandmother Johnson. She gives her a slow, no-nonsense delivery perfect for an old Southern lady who is hanging on to her dignity, but boy is she tired. I could hear that woman's colorful history in her voice.

The author is successfully mining her own history for her stories and I appreciate that she posts lots of pictures of herself and her family on her website (including some scary flashbacks to her own pageant days in the 1980s). She also found some web resources on "black and white twins" that are worth exploring as well.

[The photo of the black pearl in its shell was taken by Mila Zinkova and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Other Half of My Heart by Sundee T. Frazier
Narrated by Bahni Turpin
Listening Library, 2011. 7:50

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