In Rivver’s debut historical YA novel, a white Southern girl with a distant, depressed mother grows closer to her family’s African-American housekeeper/nanny.
As the story opens, it’s June 1965, and 10-year-old Gracie Callaway often feels shut out by her mother, Sadie, a busy and dedicated social worker for the Monroe County Welfare Department. Seeing her clients’ helpless poverty has worn Sadie down, and she often comes home frazzled, withdrawn, and easily annoyed by her four fairly well-behaved children. As Gracie puts it, “Momma stayed tangled up these days, and the quiet between us was beginning to get right loud.” But Ida Bell, a motherly African-American woman who provides household help, gives Gracie loving attention, encouragement, and support: “My heart didn’t ache quite so bad for Momma, what with Ida Bell right here and all,” the little girl narrates. As Sadie becomes more critical and controlling, Gracie longs for guidance and turns to Bible verses. When her parents decide to leave Monroe County, Gracie conceives a plan to stay behind with Ida Bell, and in the process of executing it, she matures and gains a wider perspective. Rivver honestly and insightfully describes the effect on children when a parent is struggling. She ably brings out Gracie’s hurt feelings, untinged with self-pity, while also managing to convey Sadie’s strengths. The narration and dialogue add color with homespun, folksy diction, as when Gracie describes her brother Will: “His face was happy as a tick on a fat dog.” However, the white child and black nanny at the story’s center is something of a cliché, and the book’s presentation pays little attention to the realities of Ida Bell’s hard work and long hours, or of the racism that she faces in society. Overall, her character is underdeveloped; she’s always cheerful, and she even tap-dances down the street “like the famous vaudeville tap dancer, Bojangles.” Another problematic aspect is that a white girl seems more central to Ida Bell’s life than her own children and grandchildren, who are barely mentioned.
A tale that effectively illuminates a child’s growing sensibility but paints a problematic portrait of a nanny.