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Required Reading "In a setting where working mothers are rare, novelist and Debra Monroe’s adoption of a black baby puts her On the Outskirts of Normal."--Vanity Fair magazine
“Having driven across the country to see her brand-new adopted granddaughter, Debra Monroe’s mother says the first thing that comes into her head: ‘I knew she’d be black, but not this black.’ Monroe simply says, ‘Mom, there’s a blank in the baby book called Grandma’s First Words.’ The sly, dry humor of this, the offering of the second chance, the reminder that everything, even the mistakes, will be written down—tells you most of what you need to know about Monroe’s approach to life, and to memoir. Her generosity of spirit never fails her.”—Marion Winik, author of First Comes Love
“Monroe’s memoir forges a remarkable canniness about motherhood and its twin perils, grief and love.”—Karen Brennan, author of Being with Rachel
“A single woman’s spunky memoir about the hazards and rewards of building a home and a family outside a small Texas town. Novelist and short-story writer Monroe adopted Marie, an African-American baby, and raised her in the Texas countryside where single female professors were an oddity and single white women with black babies were unheard of. The child of divorced parents and with two failed marriages behind her, the author wanted to create a loving family of her own, but first she had to fashion a suitable home out of a rundown cabin she owned. How she became her own contractor and handled the assorted workmen who didn''t know how to deal with a female boss could have been a stand-alone story, but the author integrates it into the larger context of motherly love. Single motherhood is challenging, but when race, misdiagnosed illnesses, surgery and the demands of a busy professional life are added, the struggles are compounded. Some problems—e.g., how to handle Marie''s mass of hair--are not exactly serious, but nevertheless time-consuming and frustrating. "If you''re white," writes the author, "black hair care is a secret," and she devotes an entire chapter to her dedicated search for the key to that enigma. Finding a mate amid adverse circumstances--the pickings for a female professional are slim in rural Texas—presents another problem, but the central issue is the journey of parenting. This tale of trials and triumph is an engaging, poignant read.”--Kirkus Reviews
“. . .infused with humor and compassion, by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. What shines through in the midst of challenges that never seem to stop coming is Monroe’s love for the little girl who transformed her life.”--Houston Chronicle
— Chitra Divakaruni
"Should a middle-aged white woman with a history of failed relationships try to raise a black baby in small-town Texas? Author Monroe proves she''s got the right stuff. Candid about men, mothering, racism, and her own flaws, she shows that it''s possible to create something beautiful out of a tattered past."—People
— Anne Leslie
"If On the Outskirts of Normal were a country-rock song, Lucinda Williams would sing it. In this graceful, disquieting and intensely felt account of her navigation from the outskirts to normal, Monroe offers the story of how she became the mother she needed to be—not to Marie, who in Monroe always had a fine mother, but for herself, so she could finally have and keep what she deserved."—Atlanta Journal-Constitution
— Gina Webb
"Monroe's writing is beautiful without being showy or melodramatic. She knows how to get out of the way of a naturally dramatic tale."—Dallas Morning News
— Beatriz Terrazas
When Debra Monroe, a writer and a professor living in a small town in Texas, went to adopt a child, she was told that, as a single white woman, she could expect to wait about six years for a baby. Unless, that is, she was willing to do a "transracial" adoption. When Monroe said she was, the flabbergasted social worker initially suspected she was too dim-witted to know what she meant. "Black," she explained. Monroe again said OK. The social worker responded, "Can you take a baby in two weeks?"
It took a bit longer than two weeks for Monroe's daughter, Marie, to arrive, but once she did, their new family, described in Monroe's new memoir On the Outskirts of Normal, was so unusual, she felt like a "minority's minority." Although most single adoptive parents are white women, only one percent choose to adopt a black child. This isn't solely a result of white racial discomfort; historically, the National Association of Black Social Workers has been vehemently opposed to transracial adoption. Placing a black child in white families, they have argued, is akin to "cultural genocide"; white parents, they claim, can neither teach black children their heritage, nor train them to live in a racist society.
Monroe pretty much gets it ("No one talks about it," she writes, "but it's the specter of history -- humans bought and sold"), but by the time she was looking to adopt, during the mid-'90s, the Multiethnic Placement Act -- which said that no child should be denied a parent or vice versa based on race or ethnicity -- had just been passed. And she doesn't waste much time worrying about what might have been. "If a black mother had been available, my daughter would have fared better there. Probably. But why stop?" Why not also look for a married couple, with a stay-at-home mother and a dad with a fulfilling, financially rewarding job? "I could go on, romanticizing the parent I'm not," she writes. "Skin color is the least of it."
The path she sets off on with her daughter may be far from conventional, but it is surely deliberate. The first in her family to go to college, Monroe went on to earn a doctorate, then became an author (she has written four books of fiction, and twice been nominated for the National Book Award). She was estranged from her mother when she refused to put up with her mother's abusive second husband, then had two failed marriages of her own, the second to a guy who ended up abusing her. ("In brief, people I came from tried not to hit or get hit, but we did, and we didn't talk about it -- it was too private.") But by her mid-thirties, freshly divorced, she meticulously set out a plan for motherhood: she had a good job, bought a little yellow house in the country, and, along with hired contractors and newly-acquired skills with power tools, prepared for her new daughter.
Marie is a thoroughly wanted child, "spiffy, adorable and well-tended." Monroe gives her little girl a garden plot of her own, sews her clothes, and obsesses over her safety. She swiftly discovers that allowing her daughter to have "bad hair" -- "the black woman's anorexia," one stylist explains -- is a cardinal sin of white mothers parenting black children, and spends years learning the intricacies of corn rows, weaves, hot combs, relaxers, and sister locks, mostly through an underground network of home stylists, where she is sometimes welcomed and at other times greeted with disapproval.
But her Texas small town is still racially conflicted, and she has to deal with everything from busybodies (who always expect to hear "the story") to outright racism (one doctor makes remarks about the tainted gene pool in the black side of town; a clerk asks her, "Is that a crack baby?"). When a white pediatrician repeatedly claims Marie has the early symptoms of a rare, disfiguring disorder, Monroe can't shake the feeling that he is simply unfamiliar with black skin. But other people's opinions of their family become the least of their worries when both mother and daughter end up with serious (unrelated) health problems that further strain their fragile household.
Monroe doesn't waste much time justifying her family to others -- her care and clear-eyed, unwavering focus on her daughter makes its own argument. Nor does she complain: whether she's packing her daughter onto planes to go on a book tour, or taking her along to a gig as a visiting writer, where the two stay with an old friend with questionable housekeeping habits, it's absolutely clear that this is the life she chose for them. "The sprawling mess of life is why we need stories," she writes, "a fleeting sense of order so we return to life with the unproven but irresistible conviction our mistakes and emergencies matter, so life might make sense too."
Posted July 16, 2010
"On the Outskirts of Normal" is a compassionate, compelling story of one woman's search to create a family and heal old wounds. While living in a small Central Texas town and teaching at a nearby state university, Debra Monroe adopts an African American infant daughter. Monroe handles the curiosity and suspicions of her neighbors with remarkable grace and absence of rancor She eventually comes to be accepted and even admired. Monroe's ability to forgive her mostly absent mother was especially moving to me. I read this book in one sitting as it was impossible to abandon it for more than a few minutes. I think that "On the Outskirts of Normal" has the potential to be a breakout hit similar to Mary Karr's "Liar's Club". Do yourselves a big favor and read this book; I will definitely be recommending "Outskirts" to both my book clubs.
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