For her latest book, author Rita Williams-Garcia, a self-described “city girl,” had to learn about milking a cow.
When driving through the Pennsylvania countryside to visit family, she noticed a young Amish man milking a cow. She pulled over. “He didn’t mind us watching,” she says. When she noticed the udders strained and full, she thought, “Oh, I get it. They really have to get up and milk those cows when there isn’t a calf around.” With that, she gained new insight into a developing character, a responsible young man who makes sure the cow is milked every morning, no matter the forecast.
That character, JimmyTrotter, shows up in Gone Crazy in Alabama (April 21), Williams-Garcia’s latest installation in a three-book series. The book’s protagonist—Brooklyn-based 12-year-old Delphine—travels by bus with her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, to stay at her grandmother’s house for the summer of 1969.
There, she gets a taste of Alabama’s country life, complete with chickens, creeks, and pecan trees, along with a family feud or two. Which engenders often humorous clashes of culture and generations; Fern recites strident vegetarian-tinged poetry at dinner after discovering how chicken gets on the table.
Yet the girls are growing up in a time of tension and transformation, which is also authentically rendered. “I was trying to talk a lot about changes not only in the world and how they affect community, but also how they affect the family and the individuals in the family,” she says, from the girls’ mother’s Black Panther involvement to an uncle’s struggle to live sober after returning from Vietnam.
Visceral details and Williams-Garcia’s melodic, graceful writing put readers right in the kitchen with Big Ma and Delphine, almost as if eavesdropping. Deep-seated grudges as heavy as the summer air are both amusing and thought-provoking, until a tragic act of God changes the family dynamics for good.
To get details right, Williams-Garcia drew on research, along with multiple memories and sources: a childhood best friend who hailed from Alabama, along with her own childhood memories of weekend car trips from Georgia to Alabama.
Much like Delphine, “I was a very dreamy child, looking out the window,” Williams-Garcia say s, imagining stories taking place in Alabama’s pine forests. Her father, looking back in the rearview mirror as if reading her mind, would say in caution, “A lot of bad things happen to black people in those woods.” Even a young Williams-Garcia knew what he meant.
Williams-Garcia fuses both viewpoints—Alabama as a place of deep beauty and family connections but where danger thundered by on nighttime Klan rides. Admirably, she even draws the book’s nastiest character—the white sheriff—with complexity, showing the interwoven roots between Delphine’s family and his own.
In the novel’s beginning, Delphine is disgusted with the novel Things Fall Apart, the classic by Chinua Achebe, deriding the main character as a “mean, selfish ogre.” By book’s end, Delphine possesses a new respect for the nuances of adult life, the sacrifices and tradeoffs and compromises that must be made. And Achebe’s book isn’t so bad either, she realizes.
As Williams-Garcia sipped herbal tea from her Jamaica, Queens, apartment, her obvious love for each character came through strongly over the phone. Is it difficult to close the book on the trilogy, on the characters? Williams-Garcia laughs and indicates that their story has been told. The narrative that once projected itself forward has now resolved and gone quiet. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“It is so hard to say goodbye to these characters,” she says. “I don’t just know them, but love them like they’re real.”
Lora Shinn is a former youth and teen services librarian and now writes full-time about literacy, health, and travel. Gone Crazy in Alabama received a starred review in the Feb. 1, 2015, issue.