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We are finally leaving Virginia. The sign that tells me this is small and has a picture of a hand waving. Strange, I think, I left Virginia about six hundred miles ago. I left her standing in the driveway of a two-story house I might never see again. Virginia is my mother, a woman I've never associated with this backward state until now. Thank god we aren't moving here. I wouldn't want to see my mother's name on the back of every car and at the bottom of every letter. Virginia. I don't think I'll ever come back.
West Virginia is not much better, but it's a smaller state, one we can cross in a few hours. At this rate we should make it to Cleveland by dinnertime. Tomorrow we'll drive through all those I states -- Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa -- and finally make it up to Minnesota by Friday. That is the plan. My father always has one, and unlike most people, he follows it. We've been doing this ride every summer for my entire life: Boston to St. Croix, fifteen hundred miles in three days. This summer is the first time we've altered the route, dropping down to Virginia to pick up my cousin. That added an extra five hundred miles on to the trip, but it won't slow us down. He'll make up for it after Cleveland, skimming through the Midwest like a book he's trying to finish. My father likes to drive, likes to sit behind the wheel. Even if my mother were here she wouldn't be driving. She drives too slow and stops at too many rest areas. My father likes to move fast, even when he isn't in a rush. I guess he's not comfortable with where he is; he's always focused on where he's going.
My cousin is not a good traveler. It's been two hours since the last stop and already she's begging to use the bathroom. I don't believe her. She lies the way some people clear their throat. If we were alone my father would tell me to hold it, but he's being nice to her because she doesn't have a father, and has grown up thinking that all vegetables have to be defrosted before you can eat them. Well, she has a father -- my mother's brother Renny -- but she knows him about as well as she knows us. (Three hours in the car, so far, and my grandfather's funeral when we were five.) Barely more than strangers.
When we get inside the gas station's bathroom she doesn't even go into a stall. Instead, she stands in front of the mirror and watches her reflection pull a cigarette out of her bra. I close my door on her face, a mischievous smile, and smell the smoke before it's even locked.
"Goddamn, that's good," Jess says slowly.
"You act like it's food or something."
"Nah, it's better than food." She pauses. "Except grits. Grits and smothered biscuits. Nothing's better than that."
Jess is from the South, the only one of my cousins, on either side, born below the Mason-Dixon Line. This isn't the only thing that separates us, but maybe it's the most important. So far, I pretty much hate the South. (Except for the food since I love anything fried.) I tried to have an open mind, but by the time we picked Jess up in Roanoke it was locked shut. And I'm not just talking about the rednecks. The black people bother me, too. Everybody stares too much, and they ask more questions than an English teacher. The accent also pisses me off; they talk all slow like you came all the way here just to listen to them. So far my favorite places have been the bathrooms. Cool and quiet like church. Even the old ladies leave you alone in here. Not Jess, though, she acts like the bathroom is her confessional, and she has to share everything that comes into her mind. Sometimes I think she's afraid of silence, maybe because she's an only child. Not me. When you grow up with older brothers you start to love solitude.
When I come out of the stall, she's sitting on the counter between the two sinks. She's so skinny that her ass isn't touching either sink. I haven't done that since I was six. I wash my hands in the cold water, using lots of pink powdered soap. It turns into a paste like one of my mother's facial scrubs, the kind with the grit that will take off a layer of skin. I'm afraid if I rub too hard it will wash away all my color.
"I'm gonna miss Virginia," Jess says. "I've never been gone so long."
"It's been three hours."
"No, I mean the whole summer." She taps her cigarette against the sink. When the ashes touch the water it looks like wet sand. I once read about a black-sand beach in Hawaii. I will swim there one day and remember this moment.
"Virginia summers are the best. They're sunny and real hot, and everyone just hangs out on their porches. The Virginia Players come for the Fourth of July, and then the Virginia music -- "
"Will you stop saying that?" I stare at the back of her head in the mirror. The ends are streaked blonde in a way that looks like she dyes it, but I know she doesn't. That would be too much work.
"What?" She looks at me, all innocent.
"How would you like it if I lived in a state called Shelley? If I was born in Shelley, went to school in Shelley, and just loved being from Shelley?"
Jess laughs, exhaling smoke. "My mother would never have a state named after her. She's way too crooked."
"Mine's no citizen of the year either." I dry my hands with a coarse paper towel. Jess puts her cigarette out in the sink and hops down.
"Did yours steal clothes from the Salvation Army Dumpsters? Did she pretend to be crazy to get into some study at the hospital? Did she borrow your neighbor's car to go to Atlantic City and end up gambling it away? Did she get kicked off welfare for pretending she had another kid?"
To my knowledge, my mother has only broken one law.
"No," I say.
"Trust me, the criminals are on my side of the family."
I know she includes herself on that list, probably at the top. Right before we picked her up my father told me she got expelled from her high school for trying to bribe a teacher. I decide not to mention it.
"Aren't you going to pee?" I ask, already knowing the answer.
"Nah, I'll wait till the next stop." She holds the door open for me. "After you," she says. Such Southern hospitality.
As we walk out she smells her T-shirt, checking for smoke. My father has a rule about sixteen-year-olds smoking, even if they're not his own. I stop at the counter to buy a pack of gum. Jess stands next to me, thumbing through the latest issue of Teen Beat, the one with Matt Dillon on the cover. When the cashier turns his back she tucks the magazine down the front of her cutoffs. The first of many laws she will break this summer.
I am reading Toni Morrison's Beloved from my school's summer reading list. When we cross into Ohio I am with Sethe and we are both running. I look down from the bridge as we drive over the Ohio River. All I can see are the waves of blue sky reflected in the water, thick white clouds breaking in the distance. How many people died in that river, drowning softly in the clouds and sky? I don't think I would have made it as a slave, even with the benefits of being a "house nigger." There are few lives I could imagine living other than my own.
I was five the first time I realized I was black. After watching Roots my brothers and I began to fantasize about slavery. Marcus, always defiant, claimed he would have run off just like Kunta Kinte.
"I wouldn't let anybody own me," he said with the unflinching confidence that only a ten-year-old can muster.
"I don't know..." Noah spoke slowly. "I don't think I'd want to be one of the black people." He was almost eight.
"You mean you'd pretend to be white?" Marcus looked shocked.
"But I am white." Noah held out his arm. In all fairness, he was a bit lighter than us.
"No." Marcus shook his head. "Mom's white. We're black, like Dad."
"But Dad's brown," Noah said. "Uncle Bobby's black."
"Aren't we both?" I asked.
"Yeah, but all that really means is we're black."
"I don't know if I want to be black." Noah was scratching a scab on his knee.
"You don't have a choice," Marcus said. "None of us do."
We were all quiet for a minute, sitting in a circle on the hardwood floors. I tried to focus on the planks of wood, sanded and stained a golden brown, not much lighter than the color of my skin.
"Reggie Jackson's black," I finally said.
The Yankees had just won the World Series. We'd spent the week marching around the block, celebrating each win like we lived in the Bronx instead of two miles from Fenway Park. We'd even taped the newspaper clippings to our walls, we were so proud.
"I love Reggie," Noah said. "He looks like Dad if he lost some weight."
We all laughed. Even my mother thought they looked alike. She'd called him Reggie all day when he took us to the park to play softball.
"He looks like us," Marcus said, so sure of himself that I had to believe him.
We didn't talk about race again.
"This magazine sucks," Jess says from the backseat. "No good pictures." She tosses the stolen Teen Beat into my lap. "You want it?"
"I've got a book," I say, letting the magazine fall to the floor.
"I don't like books."
"Oh really?" My father glances in the rearview mirror. He's an English professor, and he loves books almost more than he loves his children. I smile to myself, wondering how she'll get out of this.
"I don't like made-up stories. They're all a bunch of B.S. Give me something real, with pictures."
"I've got a New Yorker you can look at," my father says. "Lots of cartoons." He reaches up to adjust the mirror. I don't know if he included her in his view or cut her out.
"No thanks," Jess says.
I watch her in the side mirror as she puts her window all the way down. The wind pushes her hair back, completely off her face, and she closes her eyes. Suddenly, she looks like a Christiansen. Not like Renny, exactly, but like my grandfather and my aunt. Maybe my mother.
I lift my gaze to stare at the view out my window. The fields of grass and uncut wheat seem endless. I wonder if this is what it looked like a hundred years ago to the people migrating north. Is this what Sethe saw when she stumbled through the woods in bare feet with nothing but a torn dress and her pregnant belly? I wish I could stand at one end of America and look all the way across to the other side. I want to experience something that vast, to lose myself in the miles in between. I want to feel as small and insignificant as I am.
Copyright © 2006 by Rachel M. Harper
Excerpted from Brass Ankle Blues by Rachel M. Harper Copyright © 2006 by Rachel M. Harper. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Brass Ankle Blues
By Rachel Harper
Brass Ankle Blues is the story of Nellie Kincaid, a fifteen year-old girl of mixed-race heritage dealing with the recent separation of her parents, who have been married for twenty years. She and her father, a professor of Afro-American Literature, are traveling from their home in Boston to their summer house in rural Minnesota, which is home to most of her mother's relatives. Normally an annual summer trip, this year is filled with new tensions, being the first visit since her parents announced their separation, and Nellie's first time traveling anywhere without her entire family unit. Accompanying them is Nellie's first cousin Jess, a troubled white girl from Virginia, who hasn't seen any of her relatives, including her own father (Nellie's uncle) since she was a child.
Throughout the travels of one intense summer, as she deals with the complexities of first love and shifting family loyalties, Nellie moves towards a definition of self that encompasses all aspects of her almost paradoxical, yet truly American, identity. As Nellie struggles to define herself racially, she also tries to place herself in the framework of her complex, and often secretive, extended family, as the lines of kinship that once seemed so clear are becoming more obscure with each passing day. It is a novel focused on the adolescent search for autonomy, but it is also about the things that keep a family together: loyalty, forgiveness, and love.
1. Consider the elements of Nellie's journey as they are divided in the novel -- into three parts. Discuss why the author chose to arrange the events of her story in this way.
2. Why does Nellie feel closer to her father after her parents decide to separate? Why does she ask her mother not to come with them to St. Croix, when it is her mother's family they are visiting? Once you learn the whole truth, do you sympathize with Virginia, or do you agree with Nellie's opinion that she is selfish?
3. What does Aunt Frances mean when she tells Malcolm that now his kids "really won't know who they are?"
4. After their car catches fire, what prompts Jess to suddenly become defensive of her uncle and cousin? What makes her open up to Nellie at the motel?
5. While hitchhiking to Silver Lake, Jess argues with Nellie over whether or not her family is "really black." Nellie says that she "chooses" black -- what prompts her to say this? Contrast this moment with the end of the novel, when Jess points out that Nellie shouldn't have to choose white or black, but that being both should make her feel at home anywhere. Do you agree with Jess? Does this statement reflect a change in the way Nellie sees herself and her place in her family?
6. What is it about Dallas that draws Nellie to him? What parallels can you draw between Dallas' relationship to his hair and Nellie's relationship to her skin?
7. Nellie finds herself torn between Luke and Dallas, the small town white boy and the exotic Indian man. What are the various elements of the two worlds that they represent to Nellie? What is the significance of Luke's behavior (or lack thereof) when his friend calls Nellie a nigger?
8. What changes for Jess and Renny in the moment she learns that he brought her as a baby to stay at Silver Lake? What does the swing set he built for her -- and her current love of swings -- reveal about Jess?
9. Nellie gets injured repeatedly throughout the novel: when she steps on Jess' cigarette, when her would-be kidnapper burns her arm, when the wasp bites her shoulder at the funeral, etc. Do you think the author creates this pattern deliberately? Why or why not? What does Nellie mean when she wonders, "Is this where we find out identities, in the smooth, defiant flesh of our scars?"
10. Brass Ankle Blues encompasses three major destructions: the car fire, the barn fire, and the collapse of the cabin. Discuss what each of these events mean in the grand scheme of the novel and what is lost (both physically and metaphorically) with each.
11. The last line of the novel reads, "a girl knows to make herself whole." How do Nellie and Jess make themselves whole? What about Virginia?
Enhance Your Book Club Experience
1. Nellie's identity crisis is at the core of Brass Ankle Blues. To gain some insight into Nellie's situation, have each member of your Book Club bring an African American or Native American short story or poem to share at your next meeting. Some possible writers include Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Ralph Ellison, Sherman Alexie, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, and Ray A. Young Bear.
2. Do some research on the historical use of the term "brass ankle" and give a short report at your next meeting.
3. If it's warm outside, make your next Book Club meeting a pig-roast or barbecue at a nearby lake. If the weather is not amenable, take it indoors at a member's home or go out to a great barbecue restaurant. Over cornbread and ribs that even Jess would be proud to eat, discuss the ways in which Nellie's family come together and tear each other apart.
Posted March 14, 2008
I was a little iffy about this book when I first got it, but I'm so glad I read it. As someone who grew up also as a mixed race, the author did an amazing job and capturing the struggle with trying to find out who you are. Great book!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 27, 2006
Praise to you....Rachel Harper....this is your beginning. Through your words of quiet strength, a dignified crescendo awaits. To experience such palpable growth from one enjoyable book, seems a contradiction. I have discovered often, that difficult reading is what is necessary for growth. Not with Ms. Harpers'. She has the story and the talent to deliver.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 21, 2011
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Posted October 13, 2008
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