Ah, sisters…for all of us it is complicated. I have one who is two years younger. Because we traveled and moved a lot when we were children, we depended on each other for playmates and more. We fought, physically and emotionally — when we annoyed each other, when we wanted something the other had, for space, and so on; we played intensively, I remember an ongoing story we told each other on long car trips where I got to be the younger for a change (interesting how we both felt the other was more parentally privileged than the other); and today, decades later, we still look out for each other in every way. As I am certain will always be the case for the sisters in Rita Williams-Garcia’s Gone Crazy in Alabama, the finale of her trilogy centered on the Gaither family.
Let me state up front — I’ve been a huge fan of this series. I gave One Crazy Summer a rave New York Times review and was beside myself with joy when it received a Newbery Honor. I was delighted with the next book, P.S. Be Eleven and so happy that it, like its predecessor was honored with a Coretta Scott King award. And so now here we are with the final book giving this family, these sisters, and most of all Delphine Gaither, a satisfying send-off.
Crazy. It is in the title of the first book and the last one. Rightly. For the first book is crazy when the girls have their lives and understanding of life turned upside down during a, yes, crazy summer with their mother and the Black Panthers, in Oakland — the other side of the continent from the only world they’d previously known in Brooklyn. And so for this final book it is the next summer — another crazy one for some completely different reasons and some the same. Different because it is set in Alabama where there are no visible Black Panthers, instead there are very visible aspects of Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, and family history. The same because it is about love, about hate, about reason and unreason, about family, learning and growing and becoming no matter your age.
The plot is complicated, full, and rich; I suggest going elsewhere if you want to know about it in detail. It involves the three sisters — Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern — going to their grandmother in Alabama for the summer. Big Ma pretty much had raised them until their father married someone who is not going to just sit home and take care of him, something very much not to their grandmother’s more old-fashioned taste. In Alabama too are their great-grandmother and her half-sister who have been feuding forever. Their uncle who betrayed them so horribly is there too — will any of them ever forgive him? The girls are all growing older and changing — what does that all mean for each of them?
While for me the heart of the book is the relationship between Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern it is also about each girl’s evolving self. Since I adore E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web I won’t easily forget Fern’s use of it in her efforts to save her beloved chickens. There’s angry, angry Vonetta who is not one to forgive — will she stubbornly refuse to for decades like her great-grandmother? For Delphine, her sisters are growing up and able to fend for themselves. She’s watching and considering the older women, her father’s new wife, and her own mother and thinking about the woman she is going to be. Williams-Garcia’s way with characters is superb — she can give you sense of a stance (Fern balling up her fists), a feel (Vonetta’s glare), or an oddity (Big Ma’s obsession with ironed sheets) like few others.
In contrast to the three girls is the puzzling feud between their great-grandmother and her half-sister. With care, Williams-Garcia lets us know what is behind it — history that makes the racial dynamics of the past, present, and future all the more complicated. It isn’t simple — life never is. There are some harrowing moments — both from the past and from the immediate time of the book — in particular what happens when Vonetta disappears during a tornado. All in all, it is a fabulous read, one that can be appreciated in its entirety whether or not you’ve read the previous books (hint: Newbery Committee:).
Gone Crazy in Alabama is just crazy good.