Thursday, May 30, 2013

Book Review: Mama's Child by Joan Steinau Lester

Title: Mama's Child
Author: Joan Steinau Lester
Publisher: Atria
Publication Date: May 7, 2013
Source: copy received for honest review through JKS Communications

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

A stunning tale about the deeply entrenched conflicts between a white mother and her biracial daughter.

Mama’s Child  is story of an idealistic young white woman who traveled to the American South as a civil rights worker, fell in love with an African American man, and started a family in San Francisco, where the more liberal city embraced them—except when it didn’t. They raise a son and daughter, but the tensions surrounding them have a negative impact on their marriage, and they divorce when their children are still young. For their biracial daughter, this split further destabilizes her already challenged sense of self—“Am I black or white?” she must ask herself, “Where do I belong?” Is she her father’s daughter alone?

As the years pass, the chasm between them widens, even as the mother attempts to hold on to the emotional chord that binds them. It isn’t until the daughter, Ruby, herself becomes a wife and mother that she begins to develop compassion and understanding for the many ways that her own mother’s love transcended race and questions of identity.

My Review:

Holy cow, peeps.  You could write a dissertation covering all of the tough racial and familial issues that Lester brings to light here in Mama's Child.  As the description above implies, the primary focus of the novel is on Elizabeth, a white mother, and Ruby, her biracial daughter.  The story alternates being told from their two perspectives...and believe me, their perspectives are VERY different.  However, together they do an impressive job of illustrating the racial turbulence of the 70's, the evolution of civil rights, and the personal journeys that so many people undergo as they come to understand their own racial identities.

I was especially enamored with the way Ruby's character developed.  You get to watch her evolve from a relatively secure and happy eleven-year-old, all the way until she is nearly forty and struggling with how to connect with her mother.  Lester does a great job slowly unfolding her story, and delving into all of the emotional highs and lows she encounters as she tries to find her place in the world.  Even at times when Ruby was being especially stubborn or obstinate, I still found myself rooting for her along the way.  Her unique, rich perspective alone is a great reason to jump into this novel.

Elizabeth, though, was another story for me.  I never felt any sympathy for her, and in fact I was highly annoyed by her character from page one.  She has got to be one of the more selfish and obtuse characters I've ever encountered.  I don't think the reader was meant to always enjoy her, but I could tell that by the end, the author was trying to help me connect with her--it just couldn't happen.  I think part of the issue for me was that the "whys" of her actions were never as well-developed as Ruby's.  I didn't see a clear connection between her radical revolutionary ways and her childhood (or any other event in her background).  She also does a lot of things very abruptly (gets divorced, jumps into a lesbian relationship, etc.) which again, would not seem as strange or sudden in the text if I was given more of an understanding of why she was the way she was.  She needed more emotional development.

There was also a lot of disjointedness between Elizabeth and Ruby's perspectives at times.  For example, they each relayed a completely different version of how Elizabeth first told Ruby that she was in a lesbian relationship.  At first, I thought this was done to show the potential inaccuracies of both POVs, but after a while it just started to feel unintentionally confusing.  I wanted more smoothness between their narratives.

Okay readers, you know me--I get picky about details.  But I'm done with my issues, promise.  Going back to my initial comments, this novel has an epic scope: both in the number of issues it brings forth, and in the amount of time it covers.  If you have an interest in the civil rights movement and racial identity, I doubt you will find a better fictional work that covers them.  The narrative did lack some emotional development and detail at times, but if you're ready to tackle some tough issues with a fascinating cast of characters, Mama's Child is a good bet.

Much thanks to Sami and JKS Communications for including me on this tour!

Have you read any good fictional work that covers the civil rights movement?


  1. Wow - really great review, Kelly! Thank you so much for being on Joan's tour!! :) Sami

  2. It is so important to have the "whys" behind characters like that. Up front, before the hatred for that character festers! ;) Enjoyed reading your review.

    1. Completely agreed! An entire book can be ruined by one annoying character.

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