Rozelle Quinn is so fair-skinned that she can pass for white. Yet everyone in her small Georgia town knows. Rozelle's ten children (by ten different daddies) are mostly light, too. They sleep on the floor in her drafty, rickety three-room shack and live in fear of her moods and temper. But they are all vital to her. They occupy the only world she rules and controls. They multiply her power in an otherwise cruel and uncaring universe.
Rozelle favors her light-skinned kids, but insists that they all love and obey her unquestioningly. Tangy Mae, thirteen, is her brightest but darkest-complected child. Tangy wants desperately to continue with her education. Shockingly, the highest court in the land has just ruled that Negroes may go to school with whites. Her mother, however, has other plans.
Rozelle wants her daughter to work, cleaning houses for whites, like she does, and accompany her to the "Farmhouse," where Rozelle earns extra money bedding men. Tangy Mae, she's decided, is of age.
Phillips's searing debut reveals the poverty, injustices and cruelties that one black family suffers--some of this at the hands of its matriarch--in a 1958 backwater Georgia town. Thirteen-year-old Tangy Mae Quinn loves her mother, Rozelle, but knows there's "something wrong" with her--which, as it soon becomes clear, is an extreme understatement. As the novel opens, Rozelle is getting ready to give birth to her 10th child (by a 10th father) and thinking about forcing the obedient Tangy Mae, who longs to stay in school, to take over her housecleaning job. Using a large cast of powerfully drawn characters, Phillips captures life in a town that serves as a microcosm of a world on the brink of change. There's Junior, the perpetual optimist, who wants to teach people to read and write so they can understand the injustices of Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan; Hambone, a here today/gone tomorrow rabble-rouser whose anger against white men and their laws inflames those around him; and Miss Pearl, the only true friend to the Quinn family. At the dark heart of the story is Rozelle, the beautiful mixed-race head of the Quinn family whose erratic mood swings, heart-wrenching cruelty and deep emotional distress leave an indelible mark on all her children. Through all the violence and hardship breathes the remarkable spirit of Tangy Mae, who is wise beyond her years; forced to do unspeakable things by her mother and discriminated against by the town's whites, she manages to survive and to rescue a younger sister from the same fate.
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December 31, 2004
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