A debut coming-of-age memoir set during the civil rights era, as seen through the eyes of a young white girl.
The story elaborates on Barrow’s childhood memories of her family’s caretaker, Amelia, focusing on the family’s move from Chattanooga to New Jersey in 1959, just as racial tensions escalated and civil rights protests gained momentum. Amelia, a thick-set woman with support hose and Coke-bottle glasses whom the family calls “Mimi,” looked after Barrow and her five siblings as their parents lived entitled lives in suburbia. The memoir is largely told in a series of vignettes, and as racial violence plays out on the national stage, its implications are addressed in Barrow’s household. Each story is prefaced by a short description giving cultural context, ranging from the history of the slave-built walls on New England’s Block Island to the sit-ins at department stores across the South to the 1960 presidential election. However, the work’s most satisfying embellishments are the stretches of dialogue between Mimi and the two youngest children, Barrow and her brother Chuck. While Mimi irons, cooks and sews for the family, the youngest are always at her feet, and their conversations undulate with Southern rhythms as Mimi dispenses wise advice and homespun aphorisms. The loose episodic structure resembles the way that children form their worldviews, and Barrow shows how she began to piece together the depth of the racial divide, even in her own home, through overheard conversations and wallflower observations. These moments of reflection on social justice and adult morality thread through scenes of suburban childhood mischief. As Barrow grows, her understanding of Mimi’s strained relationship with her family takes on nuance and emotional depth. The author also shows a knack for the sensory details of afternoons whiled away at the beach or evenings exploring in the woods (“When my feet slid on the dry soil of the steep cliff ridges, I clutched the branches of small bayberry bushes”). Overall, Barrow effectively chronicles the slow fade of youthful earnestness and the searing disappointment of childhood realization.
An affecting tribute that distills larger social themes through a child’s perspective.