Sunday, August 31, 2008

Going Down South (Bonnie Glover book review)

When my copy of Bonnie Glover's second novel, Going Down South, arrived a couple weeks ago with its cover of an African-American girl holding daisies in her hand, my daughter made fun of me. “Dad why are you reading a book like that?”

Actually, my daughter's 18 and currently likes to read about serial killers so she didn't say it quite that way. It's certainly true that Bonnie Glover's two books have largely been marketed as ethnic chick lit. Almost all the characters are black, female, and they deal with emotional obstacles worthy of multiple Oprah installments. That said, I'm not female and yet I read The Middle Sister and Going Down South in more or less a single sitting each time I got them. Least you think it's the literary equivalent of fast food, I remember and savor scenes from both books. (In Middle Sister it's the calming effect of Danny the older sister's 400 pound boyrfriend. In Going Down South it's a scene where Olivia gets her grandmother's friend to take her to see her father)

The savor bit is literally true in one sense, Bonnie Glover happens to be one of those writers who writes about food with real feeling. In Glover novels, food often serves as a symbol of family continuity and or chaos. In the Middle Sister, three more or less parent-less girls begin to recover their sense of unity when the oldest sister's boyfriend begins cooking for them. In Going Down South, the three women at the center of the story begin taking their meals in the dining room of the “big house”.

Anyway, I really do need to give my daughter and others a better reason than “Well, I sort of know Bonnie Glover and I liked her first book.”

I think it comes down to this. Bonnie Glover, one of these women who also manages to practice law and raise a family between books, writes about the human capacity for resilience about as well as anyone I know. She picks some of the gloomiest subject matter imaginable, doesn't exactly write in happy endings, yet leaves the reader both hopeful and encouraged about her characters. In the first book, a major character get murdered. In Going Down South, you get a mix of teen pregnancy, rape, racism, sexual abuse by the clergy, and absent fathers. Fwiw Middle Sister throws in homosexuality and drugs. This is not Sounder. Glover goes right at the most negative stereotypes of the black family and writes about the capacity of their members to support one another and stay tied together.

One of the joys of Going Down South is that it pulls together three intriguing characters. Olivia is a bright New York teenager who's pregnancy sets off the plot. Daisy is her much lighter-skinned mother who for some reason seems uncomfortable with her own daughter. Birdie is the larger than life grandmother who after years of estrangement helps them out in Daisy's native Alabama in a kind of reverse Great Migration. Naturally, each of the three has secrets that have kept them apart over the years and the reader gets to figure these out just slightly ahead of the characters (not an easy thing to manage).

At points the secrets spill out a little fast and a climactic wrestling match between mother and daughter may strike some as a bit too staged even though I suspect many readers will find it hilariously absurd. None of this gets in the way of Glover's capacity for making the reader feel her characters' simultaneous loneliness and essential likeability. Individually they prove to be brave and smart, yet the book retains a sense that there are thousands of individuals in these circumstances who have been just as brave and smart. To me, this is part of the power of Glover's books and why I bought and read them both so eagerly. She shows us how love can survive in“shattered” even “hopeless” family situations. They do not get rescued by luck, pluck, or the return/reform of the absent fathers. Glover's characters simply prove themselves tougher than circumstances and they show it not with big gestures that magically resolve or remove the obstacles but through little steps that simply add up in the course of the story.

It's just fun to read an author who happens to be that rare combination of a realist and optimist all at once.

p.s. btw, there's also a Jack Nicholson movie called Goin' Down South which has absolutely nothing to do with this book.



At 9/03/2008 05:02:00 PM, Blogger Gifted Typist said...

I read this review here the other day and was charmed enough that I will go out and borrow the book from the lib. Thanks.

At 9/04/2008 12:14:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I hope you like it okay. Let me know if you read it.

At 9/21/2008 06:08:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

Someone at work the other day was telling me about a book that was recommended to them. She enjoyed it and then went looking for more of the author's books but couldn't locate them in the store. When she asked a clerk and was told they were in the Teen Section, she was mortified and went into a stammering explanation of how the books weren't for her. I laughed at the ridiculousness of her reaction and the marketing involved.

I read a book a while back called The Book Thief which apparently was sold as a 'regular' novel in Australia but when it made the leap to the Americas, it was marketed as a Young Readers choice. I'm so embarrassed. Help! :-)

At 9/21/2008 10:46:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I think the segmentation of book stores has generally been good for sales, but yeah the categories are artificial.


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