Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Black, White, Other: In Search of Nina Armstrong" by Joan Steinau Lester

Jamie at Books and Beverages reviewed this recently and made it sound so good, I put a hold on it at my library right away.  Culture clashes, and the way people navigate them, have fascinated me for a long time, probably since I moved from Michigan to North Carolina when I was twelve and discovered people who thought, talked, and behaved in ways different than I did.

Nina Armstrong's dad is black.  Her mom is white.  And they just split up.  Nina now lives with her mom in the same house she grew up in, but her brother Jimi lives with their dad in a very different neighborhood.  Also, Nina just started ninth grade, and her best friend has been acting oddly, hanging with some new people.  All this fills Nina with a whirlpool of teen angst.  She lets her emotions control her, finally convincing herself that the only way to make sense of her situation is to gain some distance from it by running away to the house of a friend who moved several hours away.

We never learn precisely why her parents split, or even if they're separated or divorced or what.  We get hints that her mom thinks her dad has become obsessed with his black heritage and doesn't like it, and that her dad thinks her mom should care more about his heritage, but we readers remain as confused as Nina about what's going on with her parents.  Which serves to emphasize a major theme of the story, which is that confusion causes people to make bad decisions.  Not that Nina figures out all the answers to her problems by the end of the book, but she definitely learns that seeking answers and asking questions is better than just allowing your confusion to compound.  

Woven throughout the book is a fictionalized version of her great-grandmother's journey from slavery to freedom.  Nina's dad is writing the story and asks for her opinion on it, but her mom asks her not to read it.  Torn between the two, Nina does read the book, and gains comfort and insight into her own problems from it.

I'm not biracial.  And I haven't been a teen for a long time now.  Yet, I could relate a to some of Nina's difficulties.  I've also had friendships disintegrate.  I've been treated as an outsider.  I've struggled to figure out where I fit in.  These are universal problems, but for Nina, they're exacerbated by her difficulty feeling at home in either the white or black communities.  Joan Steinau Lester uses those universal difficulties in a very compelling way to help us understand how hard life can be for someone like Nina who feels torn between two different heritages.  

There's a good bit of discussion about faith and God throughout the book, but it's kind of generic -- I can assume Nina's been raised with some kind of Christian faith, but Jesus is only ever talked about as a source of love and peace, not as the Savior.  I'm okay with that for the most part, as this is not a conversion story, but I think the book could have been stronger if some adult, like the priest Nina talks to at some point, would have reminded her that her problems are earthly, and she has the assurance of eternal salvation through Jesus.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for some mild bad language (but not taking God's name in vain), some violence and danger, and some mild innuendo.

5 comments:

  1. So glad you had a chance to read it and loved hearing your thoughts on it!!

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    1. Jamie, I'm so glad you read and posted about it, because I would probably never have stumbled on it on my own.

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  2. This sounds like an interesting book - and the move you made when you were 12 sounds interesting, too, because when I was 13 I moved from Ohio to South Carolina. There was a difference between the two places. Overall, I look back and consider it an enriching experience. It didn't always feel like that at the time, though.

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    1. Dale, what a coincidence! I was very upset about having to move at the time -- I had to leave my best friend, the only home I could remember, and my dog. (My husband moved from Ohio to Ukraine when he was 12, and they took his dog along, so I'm still annoyed about having to leave mine behind.) I spent about two years being pretty annoying myself, I suppose, as I refused to like anything about our new home (except the new dog we got), the people, the state -- I tried disastrously to make new friends with several people, none of whom really worked out. It wasn't until I was about 14 that I made friends with two people I'm still friends with today, started to mellow out, and began gradually to enjoy and embrace North Carolina and the people therein. Now I love it and miss it. But at the time, nope, I didn't want anything to do with anything "different." And it was very different in so many ways!

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    2. Yes, we had very similar experiences!

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