Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

McMullan, Margaret. When I Crossed No-Bob (3 1/2 out of 4 stars)
Mississippi was not a good place to be an African-American during and after Reconstruction. According to Gale Cengage’s Student Resource Center, the Tuskegee Institute reports that more African-Americans were lynched during that tumultuous period in Mississippi than in any other state. However, as Margaret McMullan’s new novel When I Crossed No-Bob points out, it was not such a great place for anyone who was poor, and the ignorance that reigned during the post-war years manifested itself in the mistreatment of anyone who supported a non-White agenda. The KKK appeared during this time and is a prominent character in this novel. Fortunately, not everyone felt the need to return to a morally repugnant status quo, and Mississippi finally emerged from the muck of antebellum America to enter the Union as a partner once again. Ms. McMullan’s novel follows the exploits of one young woman as she tries to navigate these very difficult waters and grow up without the fierce racism and ignorance that permeates everything around her.
Addy O’Donnell is certainly an O’Donnell, but she does not feel like one: “We know what they say about us. They say the O’Donnells is no better than termites. We only do harm and you can’t get rid of us” (7). The O’Donnells, almost always barefoot, are known for stealing, cheating, and fighting. However, although the O’Donnells appear to be the roughest class of folks in Smith County, Mississippi, they are united with many others in the state against the free blacks. At twelve, Addy neither accepts nor appreciates the racial division shattering the state, and when her mother abandons her to search for her abandoned father, Addy is left all alone to figure things out. She is eventually taken in by a newlywed couple, but husband Frank has had past dealings with the O’Donnells; Garner O’Donnell tried to steal his land: “I listen to Mr. Frank’s voice and it sounds like he still has some of what Pappy used to call ‘grudge business’ to take care of with Garner and maybe even with all the other O’Donnells” (19). Although Addy still likes to fight and play practical jokes, as she stays with her newfound benefactors, she starts to mature and realize that the ignorant O’Donnell way may not be her way. When her Pappy returns and steals a goat to throw a party for his kin, Addy starts to see the separation between her and her clan: “They smell like wet dogs and the dogs smell like them and the children don’t care any more than the dogs do. Have O’Donnell children always been this dirty or am I just now seeing it? Was I like that? Am I going back to being like that, slipping back into old ways?” (102). When Pappy arranges a marriage for Addy with a scary O’Donnell named Smasher and then gets involved in other, more insidious plans, she runs away and lives in a cave, then with a local Choctaw tribe where she is identified as a future healer because of a prophetic dream. But when Frank gets in trouble, Addy must make the most difficult decision of her life if she chooses to save him.
All people old enough and independent enough to sustain themselves have the choice to accept and embrace their legacy or find a new path free of the shackles of their old lives. Margaret McMullan gives her character Addy that choice, and a well-developed plot leads her to that place logically and poignantly. Also, Ms. McMullan’s prose is often quite lyrical, and her use of threes in repetition (i.e. cried cried cried on page 83) is a simple but effective device to show her character’s emotions. The denouement may be a bit long, but it is sustained with additional plot movement that reasonably ties up any remaining loose ends. When I Crossed No-Bob presents an entire state in turmoil embodied in the small, tough frame of a poor, young girl. As Addy matures and gradually realizes that her way is not necessarily the way of the future, she both finds and saves herself, healing the rift between her broken past and an uncertain but promising future as a healer of both people and, to a lesser extent, our shared heritage.


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