Saturday, April 3, 2010

Nowhere Is A Place by Bernice L. McFadden

Title: Nowhere Is A Place
Author: Bernice L. McFadden
Publisher: Penguin Group (2006)

Sherry has been a lifelong wanderer. She's always moving on in order to answer the questions inside that keep her from feeling that she knows herself and where she comes from. In Nowhere Is A Place Sherry has reached a point in her life when she wants to find these answers by learning more about her family; and especially why her mom slapped her one afternoon when she was six for seemingly no reason. Even though they are slightly estranged, she calls her mom and asks her to drive cross-country to the family reunion in Georgia. We learn a little more about Sherry's life in the present but the real story becomes about her family's history; the challenges and secrets of the family that have made the women who they are today. The family's story begins in 1836 with Nayeli, a young Yamasee girl, who is captured in a raid by neighboring Westos and sold to a Georgian plantation owner.

This book is quite good and one of its most impressive features is the rich character portrayals by Bernice L. McFadden. There is an emotional resonance with each character that immediately pulled me in to the story. Also, I really liked how the large-scale generational aspect didn't take away from the individual stories. Actually, I'd say her ability to weave the passage of time against the individual family members made their lives more vivid for me. For instance, the birth of Suce, Nayeli/Lou's daughter, occurs under the shadow of what has happened to her twin brothers and we only begin to get to know more about her as an early teen. At this time the family is struggling to stay safe in Georgia during the violent turmoil following the abolition of slavery. But we also see a lot of Suce when she is in her 70s. Even though the shift is now on the lives of her 12 surviving children, McFadden still allows the reader to understand Suce at this stage in her life via the wonderfully sympathetic writing. I'm starting to think I need better vocabulary to explain this particular talent that some writers have. Sometimes when I read characters my response is: what a great character, and such a unique combination of characteristics, I believe this person could exist in these circumstances. But with writers like McFadden my response is immediate without any qualifiers: I believe this person exists!    I really need a word for that.

In between the stories about Sherry's family are parts of the drive she is on with her mother. At the start of the book we're given some information that explains how they have come to interact with each other (or not interact as the case may be) but the reason for their hesitancy and tentative behavior is not exactly spelled out and experiencing them re-learn each other is a great part of the book. We get a lot of perspectives from Sherry's mom which I found particularly touching. She was at times bewildered, resentful, moved, loving, amused and offended - or many combinations of those - but also always curious as to who this person was that her daughter had become and why they were not close. Sherry's mom is also pretty funny. Her reactions to some of the places they stayed and her daughter's dietary preferences made me laugh out loud at times. And since I can't say enough about McFadden's skill with characters, another testament to her talent is that Sherry's mom is the only character we don't see much of outside of the road trip for almost the entire book but I still felt like I knew her and understood her feelings.

I'm sure it's quite obvious that I highly recommend this book but I'm gonna say it anyway: add this one to the top of the TBR pile. And if all the gushing about the wonderful characters didn't convince you let me just say that the poem at the beginning of the book is reason enough to read it. It's absolutely amazing! I'm pretty sure that Ms. McFadden would not want me to copy the whole thing here (much as I would like to) but I'd like to leave the first two lines as a parting temptation for you to run out and get this book.

i was torn from my somewhere and brought to this nowhere place
i felt alone in this land that was nowhere from my everywhere.

rating: 5 of 5 stars

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