Wednesday, January 04, 2023

Malcolm and Me

Farmer, Robin. Malcolm and Me
November 17th 2020 by SparkPress
ARC provided by Young Adult Books Central

Roberta Forest is in 8th grade at a Catholic middle school in Philadelphia in 1973. She's bright, motivated, and a gifted writer who has a good friend in Bonnie, who shares her interest in records, junk food, and Soul Train. She is also keenly aware of the social unrest in her community over Civil Rights issues. This is brought home in a horrible way when her history teacher, Sister Elizabeth, asks her why Thomas Jefferson signed the Declaration of Independence even though he had slaves. Even though Roberta is usually careful with her responses, since she is one of the few Black students in the school, she replies "He was a hypocrite". This does not go over well with the sister, and an altercation ensues. Sister Elizabeth makes a racist remark, the two scuffle, and Roberta is sent to the office and eventually suspended, even though her parents agree that the teacher was in the wrong. This results in a host of complications-- Roberta is grounded, her parents have a horrible argument, and it's rumored that Sister Elizabeth is in the hospital with a heart attack! When the dust settles, Roberta's grades suffer, her father moves out, and her teacher is fine... and oddly nice to her. The two have a weird detente, and there are times when Roberta almost likes her teacher. The racist remark is reasoned away by the Sister Elizabeth being stressed about her brother being ill, but Roberta sees other troubling glimpses of racism in the nun's behavior. She has bigger problems to worry about; she wants to write a piece for an essay competition, she has to think about the high school she will attend, and she misses her father dreadfully. She's angry at her mother, and the two frequently quarrel. Roberta's behavior at school is often mouthy, and she is eventually told she can't submit as essay to the contest because of it. She decides to enter an essay contest in Right On! magazine instead. Roberta is very concerned about her future, but as secrets come out about both her teacher and her father, she finds it increasingly difficult to behave in the way adults want her to. Will she be able to find a way forward?

A good historical novel needs good historical details, and since this book is loosely based on Farmer's life, there are a LOT of good details. From school uniforms to television programs, to random phrases of the day, the feel of 1973 is well captured. The social upheaval of the time mirrors the unrest we have today, sadly, and Roberta's emotions are as complicated and messy as the world around her is. Young readers might be enticed to investigate how they can grow their own hair to emulate Roberta's Afro; after all, since it's too big for her classmates to see around, she often gets put in the back of the class.

Sister Elizabeth is a fascinating character, and her actions (as appalling as they will seem to the modern eye) were certainly indicative of the way nuns acted during this time period. My Latin teacher liked to tell the tale of a Sister Benignia who threw a future mob boss across the classroom in his desk because he sassed her! Roberta's parents aren't happy with the school, but they want the best education for her, and know the reality of how parent complaints were taken at the time. Sister Elizabeth has her own reasons for her racist actions, but I couldn't help thinking that many of Roberta's problems were caused by the fact that she attended a Catholic school! (I grew up in a largely Catholic community, and good stories about Catholic schools were pretty rare.)

While the Forest's marital problems are pretty extreme, divorce in the 1970s was very common but somehow more sensational than it is today. The emotions and family dynamic that result from the father leaving seem like they will speak to young readers today, who are perhaps more used to the idea of divorce but suffer just the same. 

While there are a lot of books about the Civil Rights movement that are set in the 1950s and 1960s in the South, I am always looking for ones that are set a bit later, and in other parts of the country. What I would LOVE to see is a book set in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1970s, when busing was a huge issue! There are a few, like Traci Jones' Finding My Place (2010, but set in 1975 Denver), Budhos' The Long Ride (2019, set in 1971 New York), and Frank's Armstrong and Charlie (2017, 1970s California), and I'm glad to be able to add this title to that list. I also know just the student who needs this book, and it's perfect; like Tanita Davis' novels, this is decidedly upper middle grade, and would be perfect for high school readers as well. 

My only quibble is that this isn't as plot driven as many middle grade novels, which makes it drag a tiny bit in the middle. This won't matter too much to my readers who are really interested in Black history, but this does have a more Young Adult level of philosophical introspection. 

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