Thursday, July 8, 2010

Review: Leaving Gee's Bend by Irene Latham

Tags: juvenile fiction, middle grade, historical fiction, South, racism


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.

Similar Authors
Lois Lowry

Writing: 3/5
Characters: 3/5
Plot: 3/5

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.


  1. I enjoyed your review! The book itself sounds interesting, but it's too bad about the plot. I'd still read it, though.

  2. Pity it lacks strength in its plot, but dealing with this theme takes a lot of bravery methinks:)

  3. Disappointing when an awesome character is forced to narrate a lackluster plot. Enjoyed your review, though!

  4. I'm always disappointed when characters are portrayed as black and white, when everyone in the novel fits too neatly on the side of good or bad.

  5. This one just doesn't appeal to me at all. Never has. Your review definitely confirms that I should stick with that initial impression.

  6. Nice review, Steph Su.

    What a shame that you didn't enjoy this book all that much. I've heard some great things about it, I might have to read it one day to make up my own mind :)

  7. I am in love with Lu and her adventure. I have a different perspective to offer on the plot and it's description of the deep south where the "black belt" is located. With research, you will find that the part in the story about Mrs. Cobb is true. The people in Gee's Bend, AL nearly starved to death due to the inhumane things this woman did. The Red Cross came in and for two years assisted this community with recovery. I think Latham's choice of presenting historical information from the eyes of a child allows the reader to take events such as those which happened in Camden, and understand what it would have been like for a little African-American girl in the 1930's.I thoroughly enjoyed the book as did my students.


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