P.S. Be Eleven, by Rita Williams Garcia, 274 pp, RL 4
With her new book, P.S. Be Eleven, Rita Williams-Garcia picks up where her multiple-award winning One Crazy Summer, began and ended - with the Gaither sisters, Delphine, Vonetta and Fern, on a Boeing 727 flying across the country. This time, the girls are flying home from a month-long visit in Oakland, CA, with a mother they hadn't seen in seven years. And, even though they were only gone 28 days, the home they return to on Herkimer Street in Brooklyn is full of changes.
Besides the anticipation of turning twelve before the calendar year is out, Delphine has the sixth grade dance and the fact that, after the gangly Ellis Carter, she is the tallest girl in her class, to worry about. But she is looking forward to her year with Miss Honeywell, a cool, young teacher who, supposedly, was sent home to change when she wore a bell bottomed pantsuit to school the year before. And then there is The Jackson 5. At the insistence of Delphine's sometimes-friend Lucy Raleigh, the sisters sneak and stay up past bedtime to watch The Hollywood Palace and their lives are changed. Not only are they each instantly in love with one of the brothers, but the sisters, who make a point of counting and announcing the times they see black people on tv, find that they would have to shout, "Black Infinity" when that family is on the screen. On top of it all, Delphine begins corresponding with her mother, who she decides to call Cecile, who dispenses sage if terse advice, always ending with the admonishment to, "P.S. Be Eleven," even when Delphine turns twelve.
Homeless at sixteen and pregnant with Delphine not long after, Cecile understands what it means to grow up too fast and tells her that, "Time turns always, Delphine. Don't push it." But, the world around Delphine has other ideas. Uncle Darnell returns from Vietnam, his body intact but his spirit broken. And Pa has a fiance, Miss Marva Hendrix, who does not impress Big Ma but makes gentle advances with the girls. As with One Crazy Summer, the plot of P.S. Be Eleven is shot through with historical and literary threads. From an exchange teacher from Zambia who is reading Chinua Achebe's classic Things Fall Apart to Miss Hendrix and her efforts to see Shirley Chisolm elected to political office to a classroom debate about women in politics, Williams-Garcia's book is rich with details from the time. But, P.S. Be Eleven is also filled with timeless experiences and observations on the part of Delphine, who uses her letters to her mother to ask questions and find guidance. The tension of One Crazy Summer that comes from not knowing what kind of mother, if any, Cecile will be to her daughters, is a driving force of the novel, the actions and lessons of the Black Panthers taking a back seat to the girls having to fend for themselves in a strange, new city. In P.S. Be Eleven there seems to be less drama, but it's really a different kind of drama. The beauty of the novel and of Williams-Garica's storytelling skill, is that this time Delphine does get to be eleven, rather than the little mother to Vonetta and Fern that she often had to be, a role that Cecile and Big Ma placed her in. Delphine is not immune to the struggles of the adults around her or her own disappointments, but in school and surrounded by her friends, she gets to be the child she is, even if she is a child on the cusp of teenager-hood.
The Gaither girls continue to be a joy to spend time with, on the West Coast and the East Coast, but P.S. Be Eleven is truly Delphine's story. And she deserves it.
Source: Review Copy