Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern hop on a Greyhound bus in New York and head south to visit their grandmother, Big Ma, and great-grandma, Ma Charles, in Alabama. Delphine has always watched out for the youngest, Fern, and the two sometimes gang up on Vonetta who has little power as the middle child. The three must face Uncle Darnell who stole money from them (in book #2) and was mixed up in drugs. Delphine is trying to read the Classic, "Things Fall Apart," a story about an African man whose traditional way of life is threatened by colonialism, religion, and modernization. "Gone Crazy in Alabama" echoes some of the themes in "Things Fall Apart" brought about by the Vietnam War, feminism, and the counterculture of the Sixties. Uncle Darnell's problems metastasize after serving in the Vietnam War and Big Ma does not accept change easily whether its starching sheets the traditional way versus using a spray can or getting remarried. Quite a bit is going on in the subplots of this story while the main plot follows Delphine who is trying to understand her family's mixed heritage, the verbal sparring of her great-grandma's, and her relationship with her sisters.
Don't expect a nurturing family where the adults say the right things and people are always nice. The author captures the messiness of families. Delphine gets hit. This represents the times. When I grew up in the 70's, it was common for my friends to get "hit with the belt" or a spoon on their bottom and not a sign of inappropriate disciplining, like it is today. Big Ma threatens with a switch, but she also hits Delphine in the face even though she doesn't deserve it. As the oldest, Delphine is often blamed for her sisters actions and is expected to be the model example. The harshness of the adults made me cringe at times but it is authentic and not commonly found in children's literature. Foster or orphan stories with protagonists in harsh conditions come more to mind than a family like Delphine's. Don't get the impression that Delphine's family is not loving, it is obvious that they care deeply for each other, but their ways show the complexities of relationships and the adults make just as many bad decisions as the kids. And in many ways the adults are the worst because they are in the authority position and abuse it through intimidation. While I find this bothersome, it is reality.
Delphine's mother, Cecile, is one of the hardest adult characters to understand in the series. Her manners are sporadically selfish, destructive, loving, and nurturing. She left her three girls when Fern was a baby. Delphine took care of Fern and (in book two of the series) the girls meet their mother who loves them but who does not know how to nurture. She changes just a bit with Fern but it is Delphine that explains to her why Fern needs her to show outward affection to some extent. While she does this for Fern, she doesn't with the older two girls. She's a bit of a tragic figure like Okonkwo in "Things Fall Apart" and it is easy to see why she gave it to Delphine to read in book two of the series. Cecile is a poet and can hurt or heal people with her words. Hers is the frustrated voice of women in the Fifties that had less choices and freedoms; whereas, the Sixties was a time of big transitions and changes in societal norms. Cecile is smart and it is implied that she felt trapped in the role of homemaker. Raising three children was contrary to Cecile's goal of writing poetry in a quiet setting and her only way of dealing it was to leave her children.
*a few small spoilers* and here I thought I would have a review without them. Gosh darn.
The reader does not know Cecile's thoughts and Delphine is constantly trying to understand her biological mother. This confusion reflects a child's viewpoint as kids usually don't understand adult behavior. They are trying to figure themselves out in the world and have limited experience to make sense of it all. Again, this adds authenticity to the characters and plot. Sometimes Delphine hates Cecile, but most of the time she loves her. In this third book of the series, Cecile exposes her great love for her children and is silent under Big Ma's verbal abuse rising above the anger being hurled her way. It shows Delphine a way to handle her sisters and helps her make sense of her world. The beautiful poem at the end shows a mother who loves her children in her own flawed way and knows the power of words. Even though the reader never gets Cecile's point of view, the author does a good job keeping her character consistent.
On the other hand, the sheriff in this story wasn't as clear. I wanted more information on him. His character was developed to show some interesting contradictions and there was some obvious history between him and Ma Charles and slavery. The blacks in the South lived in more fear than the North and this is captured in Big Ma's attitude. She tries to hide her hair that shows her mixed heritage. People that are oppressed are belittled, kept ignorant, and stripped of being human. They feel worthless and fearful. Big Ma represents this type of oppressed individual. She lives in fear of White people and the KKK. When JimmyTrotter talks about being a pilot, Big Ma says that coloreds don't fly and that their minds are not good enough to handle all the decisions needed to do so. She does not let herself dream or hope for a future that empowers black people. It keeps her from understanding Cecile whose job is publishing materials for the Black Panthers. The fact that Big Ma gets married shows a shard of hope that she might change. She's so hard-nosed about her views, that I doubt she'll change too much.
The generations after Big Ma show the changing attitudes in African Americans and the feminist movement in the Sixties that redefined women's roles in society. The time showed a relaxation in racism and sexism. While Cecile and Darnell reflect those changes, Big Ma is the era before and represents one who clings to the security and comfort of the past. Delphine's generation gets to try and make sense out of the mixed-up adults. Lucky them. No wonder Delphine struggles to figure out what oppression means from ironing sheets to how she treats her middle sister to how it has defined her mother. What I liked best about this book is ultimately, Delphine has to look inside herself and evaluate her own actions. It's easy to point the finger at others, but not so easy to examine our own biases and flaws.