review: Leaving Gee’s Bend

book review: Leaving Gee’s Bend

author: Irene Latham

date: Jan, 2010; Putnam Juvenile

The weakness of this book begins with the title and continues through the last page. Is the focus of the book supposed to be on Ludelphia leaving Gee’s Bend as the title implies? I never could figure out what the focal event was supposed to be. I’m sure there’s a literary term for that, but I’m not sure of it right now! I mean, what was the main problem that was driving the story? It was NOT Ludelphia’s leaving (why didn’t they call her Ludie?) because that part of the story felt like more of a distraction and it wasn’t whether her mom would live or die. I think the author decided mom would live before she even began the book and she neglected to build any suspense over this important event that spanned the book. I never felt reason to have concern about the mother’s survival. From reading the book and the author’s note at the end, I think she read about the event in 1932 when the owner of the mercantile in Camden died and his wife had executors of his estate collect everything they could from his debtors. The Red Cross then made meager donations to the citizens of Gees Bend. I really think this event was was the compelling event.

Events rather than characters drove this story and because of that, the characters were poorly developed. They were so poorly developed that they felt like objects the author moved through the story rather than real life human beings with thoughts, relationships and emotions. Examine the first scene of the book when the mother (we don’t learn her first name) is quite heavy with child and bending over in pain from heavy coughs. Ludelphia (I hate that name!) starts thinking about her mule and the geography of Gee’s Bend rather than finding some way to comfort her mother. The author doesn’t seem to care about the characters and her disconnect causes the reader to have little care or concern either. When Mom does prematurely deliver her baby, none of the neighboring women come to tend to her or care for the family. I find this so odd in a community like Gee’s Bend, but this book is void of elements of community life in Gee’s Bend. I also found it odd that Ludelphia had no curiosity about the new technologies she encountered in Camden: the mirror, carpet, the car, inside plumbing… She easily figured out these things and didn’t explore them. A 10 year old child who doesn’t explore?? It was extremely discomforting that Ludelphia never comforted her mother, talked to her or combed her hair, but she would nuzzle that mule, think about her with affection and she tears over it. No one cleaned or tended to mom while she was ill and the author had to point this out by making an issue of the smell! Why didn’t Ludelphia tend to her mother when she returned home?

For some reason, this didn’t read like a MG book to me. I can’t put my finger on what it was. The pacing was off for a MG book and attention was paid to the wrong sorts of details. 7th graders don’t want that much detail about childbirth! They’d want oohing and ahhing over the baby. They’d need to see concern for a mother and new born baby! Today, this would be a fourth grader and even today a child that age would not take it upon herself to cross a river to get a doctor that her father told her not to get and it certainly would not have happened in the 1930’s when parents were parents, and children were children who knew their place and did not disobey their parents. She had insights that were well beyond her years, like when she says something about life fitting together like pieces of a quilt.

Ah, yes, the quilts. I’m a quilter. Can I first tell you that buying fabric for quilts is a recent luxury? Gee’s Bends quilters wouldn’t have even thought of that and a child would not have ripped the sash off her mother’s apron! Quilts to Gee’s Bend was work and necessity. IF Ludelphia really wanted to make a quilt for her mother, we would have read her contemplating the textures and colors of the quilt pieces and she would have been imagining the pattern of her quilt. I don’t know that she would have kept a needle in her pocket!!

Now, just a few inconsistencies, some which may just be stuff I missed along the way because I was so disappointed in this book, I didn’t take the greatest care in reading it. I’m pretty sure there is a Creole language in Gee’s Bend, so why wasn’t it in the book? Why did Ludelphia spend so much time with the doctor and his wife and how did she get back across the river? What happened to the first bottle of morphine? Why did the father get so upset with Ludelphia for letting Etta into the house when no one told her not to? Am I really to believe that Ludelphia’s father (did he have a name?) would have been able to read? I was a bit surprised even that Ludelphia was reading and writing. And who puts cinnamon in pound cake?

And then, there is the matter of race. Race is barely in this book about African Americans in a uniquely African American setting. This unique culture is not described. The poverty of Gee’s Bend is barely contrasted to the life in Camden, the frustrations of sharecropping is not mentioned in fact, we’re made to think that the white men who sold goods on credit really were kinda nice! All the white characters in the book were kinda nice, weren’t they? Well, then there was Mrs. Cobb but she was ill, with good reason to be mean. (That sentence is so full of sarcasm!) So, if all these people were so nice, why was there a separate waiting room in the doctor’s office? Why were there no cars in Gee’s Bend? Why was there such a disconnect between the two cities? Why wouldn’t the doctor go see this dying Black woman and why on earth would his wife give a 10 year old girl two bottles of morphine and tell her to give her mom just a small teaspoonful every now and then and not go see this sick woman herself?

Overall, I’ll just say YUCK: poor writing with careless attention to detail no character development.

To me, this book exemplifies the criticism that has surrounded Gee’s Bend in recent years. I think we’ll call it ‘intellectual gentrification’. The story of Gee’s Bend and its culture, which includes its language, music and quilts were not important to America until White people ‘discovered’ it. And here we have this book void of Gee’s Bend culture where main characters don’t even have names getting published where so many other well written, well documented books by authors of color are not.

Again, I say YUCK

disclaimer: publisher’s ARC

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19 thoughts on “review: Leaving Gee’s Bend

  1. Edi,

    I can’t comment on the book because I didn’t read it, but I enjoyed your review and wanted to comment on an important point you made therein.

    When I first went to Madison, Wisconsin for school I could not believe it but sure enough, they put cinnamon in their pound cake! And moreover, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin they put raisins in their cheesecake. Weird stuff happens all over!

    • I don’t know that cinnamon in pound cake would really classify as in important issue, but it does speak to authenticity. In an interview, the author said she referred to her grandmother’s pound cake recipe in the story. We could trace where her grandmother lived, where her relatives were from but this is just a fine point in a story with much bigger problems.

  2. Wonderful review Edi! You bring up points I didn’t even think of, like the fact that buying fabrics for a quilt was a luxury and I agree, I didn’t see the point of the whole Etta thing, how would Ludelphia know? As for how very few characters were named (although I don’t think many kids refer to their parents by their names so that’s ok. I was quite annoyed at how there were no straight out mean white people in this novel, while everyone has another side to them, the sharecropper booss was made out to be this sympathetic character who was deranged and I didn’t care for her. I think the hardships of sharecropping could have been discussed further.

    • I think you’re right Ari, more could have been made of sharecropping. In many ways, it was simply enslavement redefined. The sharecroppers had a few more freedoms, but they were still oppressed. Ludelphia at 10 would probably just be starting to see the realities of this system and with the actions of Mrs Cobb, with the loss of her mother as part of the work force due to illness, sharecropping would have weighed heavy on her mind. A 16 year old boy would not have the luxury of not helping dad with the crops if he didn’t want to!

    • Karen,

      As a quilter, I wish you would comment to comments that mistakenly think this accurately reflects our culture, the times and quilting.

      I read a review and subsequent comments that I’ll say ‘distressed me.’

    • Karen,
      I thought authors had learned that when they’re writing about real people, places or events that their readers will call them on their accuracy to detail. I would think an author would read primary sources, authoritative secondary sources and do site visits. I would think you would have to hear the sounds and learn how to reproduce the language. So much more!! Have you read Poisonwood Bible? Kingsolver masterfully teaches how to write outside your culture.

  3. Many authors have written outside of their culture very well. To be successful I think an author must listen, ask question and pay attention.

    I also believe if an author is creating a character from another culture they should let few people from that culture to read rough draft and get feedback.

    I always hear of female and male authors who’ve written characters of the opposite sex, getting feedback from a person of that sex.

    So why not when writing outside of one’s culture?

    “I find this so odd in a community like Gee’s Bend, but this book is void of elements of community life in Gee’s Bend.”

    That is such a great point. The woman of Gee’s Bend tell their stories and bond by quilting but I didn’t that from this book.

    I hated how weak father was. Yes, slavery broke down a lot of men and women, but if an author is going to do that build up one of the other characters. Like the son a neighbor or another relative.

    As a whole this family was very flat. The only Black character with a little life ( it takes courage to leave your small hometown for the big city) was Etta, and she was forced to return to Gee’s Bend after being deemed a witch.

    And why not call her Ludie.

  4. Hello,

    I am an African American English teacher in New Jersey with deep roots in the South. I was introduced to Leaving Gee’s Bend by one of my students. I, like Brenda Woods (an African American author I completely respect and honor), could not put Leaving Gee’s Bend down. I thought it was excellent and loved how it inspired one of my students and look for it to inspire many more.

    I also agreed with Newbery winner Richard Peck about how this main character whether she’s called Ludie or not “reaffirms the human spirit” but maybe his opinion doesn’t count so much because he’s not a black blogger or librarian. Unfortunately, he’s just a white man who has won a Newbery.

    This all makes me wonder if the criticism from African American reviewers isn’t more about the color of the author’s skin. It’s a non-issue to me. Ms. Latham is an excellent writer and I loved so many of her turns of phrases. Her poetry roots are obvious.

    What would reviewers have said had the author been black, I wonder? The scuttlebutt is that she’s white and how dare she co-op a black story. I hope the scuttlebutt ends up selling her many, many copies. I’m going to invite her to come speak to my students–largely African Americans and Latinos.

    If they have questions about the book that are not answered by the book, then I will do my job. I will teach. I have yet to come across a book worthy enough for the classroom that doesn’t leave students with unanswered questions. If everything is on the page, what’s my purpose? And where is the critical thinking?

    To talk about a racial divide (from Doret’s page) because a couple of African American bloggers (and I know you are a librarian, is it? and Doret, a bookseller) didn’t like this book (because they may have been looking for it to be something it never intended to be–a stand on race) is ludicrous to me.

    This is a warm and charming story about a bold girl who did something unexpected to save her mother. At least that’s how I see it. Every one has their own opinion informed by their own experiences, certainly. I’m just offering mine as another African American woman to hopefully give whatever discussion is developing here some balance. And if this book is ultimately well-received by more white people than black, I still think that is an excellent thing. How many white children have had the opportunity to think about the poverty in a small place like Gee’s Bend before this book?

    If there is a better book to be written, then please write it.

    Another point I’d like to make is about the father. He read as a man who loves his family and is doing the best he can under unfortunate circumstances. He seemed heartbreakingly defeated, which is an emotion that given the circumstances rang very true to me and endeared him to me.

    To ask that he be a certain kind of black man or to say that he should have been portrayed this way or that way because that’s how a black man would have been given the times is also ludicrous. All characters can’t be all things and it is not outside the realm of possibility that this man was representative of a man from 1932 Gee’s Bend. Just because he is not the man that you would have preferred to see doesn’t mean he didn’t exist in that time. And this was not his story or the brother’s story. It was Ludelphia’s story.

    I found the scene where she almost drowns so compelling. I so cared about this little girl from start to finish and could tell the author did as well. I did not think it was at all a forgone conclusion that the mother would live. But that Ludelphia was naive about the world that awaited her in Camden and got herself in way over her head was pitch perfect.

    Further for a professional reviewer to use the phrase Yuck in her review is such a turn-off to me. So very unprofessional and just mean-spirited. Had this been an African American author I doubt such a word would have been used.

    Again, I am black with deep southern roots though I live in New Jersey, and the experience described in this book read completely authentic to me.

    The author, according to her website did talk to people in Gee’s Bend, visited often and it seems had two residents who appeared with her at her book signing read the book:
    Mary Ann and China Pettway. They were happy enough with the book and portrayal to appear with Ms. Latham at her signing, so that goes much further in speaking to the authenticity of this book than a reviewer who would use the word Yuck in what’s supposed to be professional writing.

    I know this is the web, but I would never use such a review with my students as a model of how to critique. Never, and I can’t respect a review that does or consider it fair, especially given the circumstances surrounding the review (meaning the author’s color) and my feelings that this is being made unnecessarily racial.

    Thank you for your time,

    San

    Please note this is the first time I’ve even commented on a blog, but something about this budding discussion moved me and I felt a respobsibility to speak up about my affection for the book. I hope I have done so with both passion and respect.

    • San,
      Thank you for sharing your comment. You seem put have put a lot of effort into composing your thoughts. Your disagreement with my review of the book gives testament to the fact that the African American community is a very diverse and vibrant community that does not have a monolithic voice.

      I do wish however that in your review you would have spoken more to what you see to be the strengths of the book. While you are seeking a professional review, you chose to attack my integrity rather than to support this piece of literature, as a professional would do. You can’t have it both ways!

      Among other things, I am a librarian. I am not a professional reviewer and I’ve never claimed to be. I have to admit that while working in the library and while continuing my education I’ve never seen a dictionary which lists and defines all key words that are befitting a professional. ‘Yuck’ works for me, especially in this case.

      I’ve read a few reviews that say they found the characters in this book to be engaging, but not one has mentioned how the author engaged them. I’d like to know what I missed! Was it the warm relationship between the mother and daughter? The engaging dialog? I saw a young girl in the opening pages who was more concerned about her mule than her mother. I saw two parents who didn’t even have names! I found the short trip into Camden as incredible: she couldn’t swim, but managed to survive the river, then she sat down and started sewing wet fabric with wet thread.

      Because I am an Black woman in America with southern roots, a blogger, an educator and a librarian, I have the same right to like or dislike a book that a White man who is an author who won a Newbery has. He may be able to express his opinion with greater elegance, but it’s still just an opinion.

      And I’ve come this far without discussing race.

      We all bring our own experiences, training and background into what we read. Two people don’t read the same book. I want rich history and culture for my students. I want them to be able to define their own place in the world and not let it be a box into which they are thrust. I do know that what I’m able to give my students, if I were still in the classroom teaching history, would be different from what others may provide because my school is largely African American. We talk of race, teach race differently in different situations, unless we know our students have had the same preparation. On some levels, I can see why this book would be embraced, but on the merits of good literature, I don’t get it.

      Honestly, I think saying that the problems with this book stem from the fact (not the “scuttlebutt” but the fact) that is author is White lets her off the hook for what I see as poor writing. No doubt more Whites will like this than Blacks: it’s a safe book about race.

      Hopefully, you get the point that her race has nothing to do with why I don’t like this book.

  5. For the record, I think you did a stand up job, Edi. This is precisely the kind of review I like to read. Well thought out. Intelligent. Bringing up issues that other folks haven’t thought to. I commend you for your insights.

    • Thanks for the comment. If I can give readers something to think about, whether or not we agree about liking a book, give them a different perspective, I think I”ve done a pretty good job.

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  7. Edi,
    I have to say I agreed with your review but I need to take it just a bit further on the quilting end of things. I don’t like to bash any writer (Heaven knows I’m too mired down in my own novel-in-progress to want to sling mud!) but could all these writers who want to use a craft please get some input from an actual person who has mastered the craft? Depending on where you were at in the novel, this girl either had a few pieces of patchwork or an entire quilt top in her pocket! If this had been a baby quilt this might have worked (barely) but her mother wraps herself in the quilt at the end! I’d like to see the pocket that could hold one of my quilt tops that is large enough to wrap around an adult! In addition, the character only ever used one word to describe the work she was doing on her quilt, “stitching.” While I can’t speak to the local dialect and perhaps this is common in this area, historic documents show women describing quilting in various stages…piecing, basting, quilting, binding…to name a few.
    Just my personal soapbox, but thanks for letting me know I’m not the only one who was less impressed than I hoped to be.
    I’m glad I happened to stumble on your blog…I’m looking forward to reading more of your reviews!

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