Sunday, March 01, 2009

Review: Brass Ankle Blues

by Rachel Harper. Simon & Schuster, 2006. Library copy. Brass Ankles was recommended to me by Firemom about a year ago. I put it on my To Be Read list but didn't get to it until this past week. I didn't even know what it was about until I started reading it so I didn't understand why Jenna thought I would like it. It was a big Aha! moment for me.

Nellie is a 15 year old mixed girl traveling with her Black father and white 16 year old cousin, headed for the lake in Minnesota where her family has land and homes. They meet up there every summer, but this summer is different because her white mother is divorcing her father and not coming to the cabin with them. Jess, her cousin, has left her mom's home and doesn't know her dad at all (Nellie's mom's brother).

The story is about identity, growing up, crushes on boys, dangerous behavior, and anger/rage against one's parental units. Race and identity play a major role, which for me makes it far more interesting and complex than your typical coming of age in a falsely mono-racial world. One of the key passages is when Nellie responds to a boy's racial slur, calling her by tackling him and dunking him in the lake in a fit or rage. Later her 6 foot, Mahogany father talks to her about how best to deal with this all-to-frequent situation:

"How many times have you seen me hit somebody?"
I look away, hoping this is a rhetorical question.
"How many times?"
:What?" He cups his ear.
"Never. I've never seen you hit anybody."
"And why do you think that is? Do you think I never get angry?"
I sink into the wall, which feels as cold and pliable as clay. "I know you get angry."
"Right. And yet I never let that anger translate into violence. Do you want to know why? Because I don't want to give them an excuse. An opportunity to say I'm inferior or uncivilized, or to look at me as if I were a monster. I'm not one of them, you know that, but I'm playing by their rules - I have to if I want to succeed, that's the way this country was built." He leans in and lowers his voice like he's telling me a secret. "Listen, I'm not saying that he didn't deserve it. I'm certain that he did. But you shouldn't be the one to punish him, you shouldn't let his hatred become your own."

Whenever I read a scene where a Black parent is giving out this kind of wisdom I am all ears. Her dad is confused and heartbroken at the end of his marriage but he still has a well of strength, tenderness and light to offer his daughter. Most of the time he doesn't force it on her or pursue her trying to get her attention either. But he's always there for her when she looks around.

I'd recommend this book to young teens of any race, as it really speaks to the identity issues everyone goes through. Read a passage from the book at the author's webpage.

I didn't know the term "brass ankle" was an old slang expression for a mixed race person of Indian, Black, and white heritage. Harper quotes a passage from Edward Ball's book Slaves in the Family to explain it in the front of the book. Here's a site that talks about it in the history of South Carolina. Have you ever heard it?

1 comment:

Ali said...

Wow, this book looks fabulous. Thank you for posting such a long quote, it really helped me get a feel for the text. Another must-read, for me!