Thursday, July 8, 2010
Review: Leaving Gee's Bend by Irene Latham
10-year-old Ludelphia Bennett wears an eye patch over her dead eye, loves quilting, and has never gone beyond her loving community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama—until her mother is dying, and then Lu decides to make the 40-mile journey to the larger town of Camden to get medical help. But life outside Gee’s Bend is not as simple, as Ludelphia must confront obstacles not only in the form of physical impediments but also cold-hearted people if she wants to save her mother.
A great main character unfortunately doesn’t make up for the contrived plot in this lukewarm debut novel that attempts to be a moving journey of familial resilience in the face of racism and other elements.
At the beginning, I thought this book was almost magical. Ludelphia is a fantastic narrator, her voice so genuine, earnest, and warm. She’s ten years old but will be loved by readers of all ages, a classic protagonist going on a seemingly straightforward journey for someone else and discovering something about herself in the process.
Unfortunately, the plot felt slow and forced all the way through. The moment Lu leaves Gee’s Bend, I had trouble that the world was ours, that this is historical fiction. The world outside Gee’s Bend was disconcertingly black-and-white: things and people were either blessed angels helping Lu, or else they were sinister, malicious, inhumane beings. Lu’s greatest human antagonist comes in the form of Mrs. Cobb, whose late husband is Lu’s family’s employer of sorts. It’s hard to get a read on Mrs. Cobb. One minute she’s almost saccharinely kind—the next, she’s one step away from joining the KKK.
I understand that, to a young girl like Ludelphia, the unknown world might seem like it consists of simple binaries, but I was really hoping for more, events and people that we can actually claim as our own history, ugly as it may be. The story plods along until we can’t see Lu’s natural charms for the eyeroll-inducing melodrama.
LEAVING GEE’S BEND has a great protagonist but is sadly lacking in plot strength. It’s no standout addition to African American historical fiction, but perhaps there may be young readers who are interested in the concept enough to lose themselves in Ludelphia’s mesmerizing narration and not notice the story’s flaws.
Overall Rating: 3 out of 5
Cover discussion: 3.5 out of 5 - I think it's a gorgeous picture and layout, although it doesn't seem like exactly the right cover to attract its target (younger) audience.
Putnam Juvenile / Jan. 7, 2010 / Hardcover / 240pp. / $16.99
Received from Blue Slip Media for review.