The escape attempts of a mixed-race honor student in mid-’70s New Orleans.
Sandrine, age 11, doesn’t fit in at her Catholic school: too light-skinned to be black, she’s too black to be white. Her father, a doctor, has more or less abandoned her to her mother, Shirleen, who treats Sandrine as a full-time, unpaid maid. Sandrine nevertheless earns all As and would be on the Alpha honor role, not the Beta, if the A-list weren’t boys-only. She desperately anticipates summer in the country with her grandmother, Mamalita, who introduces her to the pleasant side of domesticity: making pomegranate jam and snapping beans on the front porch. This summer, however, instead of taking her to Mamalita’s, her father deposits her—before absenting himself—in Mississippi, with his current wife, overweight, obnoxious Philipa, and Philipa’s daughter Yolanda. When Philipa hits her and leaves her with a male acquaintance, who molests her, Sandrine makes her way back to New Orleans, where she’s told Mamalita has died. After Philipa summarily dumps Yolanda on Shirleen, Sandrine must tutor the dim, sexually precocious eight-year-old, while fending off the neighborhood perverts, including Champ, who stalks schoolgirls. When Champ assaults Sandrine, Shirleen blames and beats her. (Mama’s weapon of choice is a paddle labeled “Sock It To Me.”) Sandrine finds a kindred spirit in schoolmate Lydia, a bright older girl sexually abused by her stepfather. When the nuns force the stepfather to leave, the mother disowns Lydia. Stung by Shirleen’s favoritism toward Yolanda, Sandrine flees to her father after she learns Shirleen’s rational for mistreating her. Sandrine’s first-person voice often rings a little too smug, whiny and monotone, and her ultimate idolization of her father is undercut by his cavalier neglect of her at the book’s outset.
Less insightful than others in this vein (compare with Sapphire’s Push or Carolyn Ferrell’s Don’t Erase Me), this debut displays talent in need (unlike Sandrine) of discipline.