Sweet family nostalgia combines with the harsh realities of coming of age African-American during the Great Depression.
Patsy, based on the author’s aunt, is 12 and has lived a contented life in Detroit. May Ford, Patsy’s mama, busily works in her summer kitchen, a structure built by Patsy’s hardworking father to allow his wife to chop, jar and store a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for winter. All is well with the world. However, when May decides to take her daughters to Tennessee by train, Patsy’s view of the world is shaken. She is curiously unprepared for the hostilities of racism and discrimination and is changed forever when, upon the train’s departure from Cincinnati, she and her family are forced to give up first-class seats for seats in the titular “colored car.” Elster’s story offers an engaging glimpse inside day-to-day life at that time. The narrative sparkles when guiding readers through the sights and sounds of Patsy’s neighborhood. However, the story stumbles, seemingly sacrificing narrative ease for a determination to adhere to the real-life events it is based on. Thus, Patsy’s reaction to racism feels melodramatic and confusing, marring an otherwise easy and informed read.
Sharp historic insight wars with cumbersome sentimentality in this sometimes-overwrought yet heartfelt tale. (Historical fiction. 8-12)