Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Review: Zeely

By Virginia Hamilton. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1967. Paperback by Aladdin Books, 1986. Illustrations by Jerry Pinkney.

I took this off the discard shelf in my library and put it on my summer book list. It is one of the first highly acclaimed African American children's novels. It was her first novel, written as a short story while in college at Ohio State and later made into a short novel. I found the language to be a bit old fashioned. Geeder, the young girl who is the main character, speaks like Shirley Temple. "Goodness sakes, everyone in the whole place will think we're just little babies!" she says in the train station as they wait for the train taking her and her younger brother down South to her Uncle's farm. "Aren't train stations just grand?" she said. "Look at those pillars - I bet they're all of three feet around. And the windows! Did you ever see anything so very high up?" It was a bit off-putting at first, until I got used to it. Once I got to know Geeder I became drawn into her imaginative inner life and developing sense of self as a strong, beautiful, independent young woman. I had to keep reading to find out how her crush on Zeely, a tall, beautiful, dark-skinned, mysterious woman farming hogs with her father on Geeder's uncle's land would turn out.

Geeder and her brother Toeboy take the train to Uncle Ross's farm for the summer. They have complete freedom to roam the farm, with their only responsibility to take care of feeding the chickens. Uncle Ross is kind and wise, turning up just when they need a little reassurance or a bit of help in figuring out the puzzle of Zeely's heritage. Geeder finds a picture in a magazine of a Watusi queen. She is struck by how similar the Watusi queen looks to Zeely. She becomes convinced that Zeely is of royal blood and is obsessed with finding out more about Zeely. In a typical pre-adolescent crush she makes up wild stories about her and watches for clues to her identity. She wanders around in a daze looking for opportunities to get closer to Zeely, who doesn't speak to her or acknowledge her presence until near the end of the story.

One of the surprising things for me is the lack of adult supervision Geeder, Toeboy and the other children of the town have. This is a story from another era. On their first afternoon on the farm Geeder and Toeboy wander around exploring. They find the pond at the end of the pasture, take off their clothes and go swimming. When they get tired of swimming they put their clothes back on and wander off to another activity. I can't imagine letting my kids just decide to jump in a pond without an adult watching them. Later in the story they go out at night to a house in town where all the children are gathering at night for a bonfire. The children pile fuel on the fire and dance around it, singing and playing games daring each other to get as close to the flames as possible without burning their clothing. The only adult around is one child's father, and he is in the house. Geeder and Toeboy walk across town in the dark, play with the other kids around the fire and then walk home. Their curfew is twelve o'clock. I can sort of see this happening in the country 40 years ago, but I can't quite believe it.

The middle of the book has a really exciting scene when Zeely and her father drive the hogs to market. They stampede through town full of squealing and stink. Geeder of course gets herself right in the middle of the action, trying to get close to Zeely and help her coax along a sow that falls under the stampede. The description is so vivid it turns my stomach a bit. I think kids will love reading it. I think this book will appeal to both boys and girls in grades three and four. I imagine there would be some great class discussions about what Geeder is thinking and feeling, and the difference between her views and Toeboy's. This book was an ALA notable book. Read a review by a ten year old student here at the Spaghetti Book Club.

Hamilton died in 2002. Her obituary, written in Black Issues Book Review, March-April, 2003 by Maisha L. Johnson discusses Zeely and the impact the novel had when first published. Hamilton's home page is here.

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