Third Girl from the Left

Third Girl from the Left

4.4 5
by Martha Southgate

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The New York Times hailed Martha Southgate’s previous novel, The Fall of Rome, as “powerful,” O, the Oprah Magazine called it “quietly accomplished,” and Essence lauded it as “a bracingly honest look at race, class, and self-acceptance.” With Third Girl from the Left, Southgate brings her acute vision and emotional scope to

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The New York Times hailed Martha Southgate’s previous novel, The Fall of Rome, as “powerful,” O, the Oprah Magazine called it “quietly accomplished,” and Essence lauded it as “a bracingly honest look at race, class, and self-acceptance.” With Third Girl from the Left, Southgate brings her acute vision and emotional scope to a larger canvas. This enormously entertaining yet serious novel tells a story of African-American women struggling against all odds to express what lies deepest in their hearts. Like Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, it ranges freely through time, fact, and fiction to weave an enthralling story about history and art and their place in the lives of three women. “My mother believed in the power of movies and the people in them to change a life, to change her life.” So explains Tamara, daughter of Angela, granddaughter of Mildred—the three women whose lives are portrayed in stunning detail in this ambitious novel spanning three generations of one family.
Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1970 is not a place a smart black girl wants to linger. For Angela, twenty years old and beautiful, the stifling conformity is unbearable. She heads to Los Angeles just as blaxploitation movies are pouring money into the studios and lands a few bit parts before an unplanned pregnancy derails her plans for stardom.
For Mildred, movies have always been a blessed diversion in a life marked by the legacy of the 1921 Tulsa race riots. But after Angela leaves Tulsa following a bitter fight, the distance between them grows into a breach that remains for years. It falls to Tamara, a budding documentarian—raised in LA by Angela as though they have no family, no history—to help mother and grandmother confront all that has been silenced and left unsaid in their lives.
A bold, beautifully written, and deeply involving novel, Third Girl from the Left deftly examines the pull of the movies, the power of desire, and the bonds of family in a quintessentially American story.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Gutsy and riveting...The best kind of page-turner, layered with so much authentic detail...What a wonderful story."—Julia Glass, author of Three Junes

"As intense and serious as it is fun and fabulous, Southgate...once again penetrates a hidden world with devastating accuracy."—ZZ Packer, author of DRINKING COFFEE ELSEWHERE

"THIRD GIRL FROM THE LEFT is a powerful testament to mothers and daughters, and how differently we all dream."—Veronica Chambers, author of MISS BLACK AMERICA

"Martha Southgate's THIRD GIRL FROM THE LEFT is a marvelous combination of the movies that inspired it. . .elegant . . . electric."—Ayelet Waldman, author of Daughter's Keeper

"A compelling saga of love, film and family secrets...the three plotlines [Southgate] deftly weaves into a richly textured whole." Kirkus Reviews

"A graceful, insightful novel."—Lisa Shea Elle

"Third Girl From the Left gives us the flip side of Hollywood's glitz and glamour.....A gripping tale."—Margaret Williams, Essence

"Southgate makes [her] women imperfect enough to be interesting, but gives them enough heart so they're sympathetic...Delicious details abound."—Chelsea Cain The New York Times Book Review

"Vivid and spirited....Entertaining, occasionally racy and moving when you least expect it to be."—Stephanie Zacharek Newsday

Chelsea Cain
Southgate makes these women imperfect enough to be interesting, but gives them enough heart so they're sympathetic despite their flaws. Delicious details abound, but the historical flotsam works especially well in Angela's section, which includes a saucy trip to Wilt Chamberlain's party palace.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
In her second novel, Southgate (The Fall of Rome) explores how one generation's liberation becomes another's idea of constraint. Nested narratives follow three black women-Mildred, daughter Angela, and granddaughter Tamara-briefly breaking tradition to define themselves. Tamara, an aspiring Spike Lee, frames the tale of Angela, who escapes a prosaic life playing the obligatory naked black woman in the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Hollywood's limitations turn Angela's dreams to frustration, and her outsized sexual displays incur her mother's wrath. Bold decisions and compromises leave Angela, a single mother working in a doctor's office by day, watching videos of her glory days at night with her female lover, while insisting that she is not a "dyke." The narrative spirals back to Mildred, showing how movies-a conduit through which Mildred and teenage Angela connect-are a window to a better world. The narrative culminates in Tamara's documentary about Angela, Mildred and herself, black women in America, "making their lives mean something where they can." While what should invigorate-Tamara taking the creative reins of a form her elders limitedly participated in-lacks conviction because of a too-neat conclusion, the book's emotional intensity and its characters' complex motivation overcome occasional simplification. (Sept.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
At the heart of Southgate's third novel (after The Fall of Rome and the YA work Another Way To Dance) is Angela, black, beautiful, headstrong, and utterly determined to make it as a Hollywood actress in 1970. She flees Tulsa, OK, after a childhood spent watching movies with her starstruck mother and gets drawn into the blaxploitation film boom. Hollywood's big bargaining chip-sexuality-never quite delivers the hoped-for big roles, leaving Angela stranded in bit parts. Roommate Sheila is marginally more successful, and soon the two find with each other the stable love that is missing from their roller-coaster scramble for parts. Then Angela's unexpected pregnancy by Rafe, a fellow black actor, spins the two women out of the movies and into regular jobs. When Angela is summoned home 30 years later to tend to her 91-year-old mother, she brings along daughter Tamara, a budding film director. There, the three women come full circle as Tamara films her grandmother's oral history, setting in motion the kind of healing that comes from uncovering lost secrets and family tragedies. Southgate writes with a clear-eyed sensitivity of the faceless people who helped make possible the careers of today's successful African American superstars; highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/05.]-Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A compelling saga of love, film and family secrets. In her third venture, Southgate (The Fall of Rome, 2001) braids a multigenerational tale of the loves and ambitions of mothers and daughters. In the mid-1950s, Mildred is a middle-class black housewife in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with an open love of movies and a secret love of the town's film projectionist. Film provides fascination and solace for Mildred, who slips away from a haunted family past to meet her lover in the darkened Dreamland Theater. In the '70s, Mildred's daughter Angela also falls for film, leaving her seemingly stable future in Tulsa for life as an actress in Los Angeles. Yet after running headlong at her career, she finds herself typecast in the nudie bits of blaxploitation films, and her relationship with Mildred grows strained. After an unplanned pregnancy, Angela leaves the limited world of bit-part acting to raise her daughter Tamara. In the '80s, Tamara grows up watching her mother on film. Movies, the vestiges of Angela's former life, help kindle Tamara's interest in film, but as her interest in serious filmmaking grows, Tamara becomes ashamed of her mother. She sets out for New York, where she enrolls in a directing program, and cuts herself off from Angela. Yet when illness calls Angela and Tamara back to Tulsa for the first time since Angela's pregnancy, Tamara takes her camera and uncovers a past she didn't even know she was missing. Suddenly the private desires, hidden secrets and life struggles of mothers and daughters come into sharp and rich focus. Like the documentary film that Tamara eventually makes, Southgate's record cuts and jumps back between the three plotlines, which the author deftly weaves into arichly textured whole. Art conquers all: Family mysteries are solved, and sassy, determined women triumph.

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.75(d)

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My mother was an actress. In some ways , she doesn’t look very different from the way she did back then. She still has honey-colored skin and eyelashes that make you think of fur or feathers. Her movies were all made in the early 1970s, before I was born. You know the titles of some of the big ones: Shaft and Super Fly and Blacula.
She wasn’t in those. Then there were the little ones that blew in and out of the dollar theaters in Cleveland and Detroit and Gary inside of a week, until the last brother who was willing to part with $1 had done so: TNT Jackson and Abby and Savage Sisters. She’s in some of those. You wouldn’t know her, though. She was no Pam Grier. These are her credits: Girl in Diner, Murder Victim #1, Screaming Girl, Junkie in Park. She was the third girl from the left in the fight scene in Coffy. When I was little, sometimes she woke me late at night and we sat down in front of the television to watch a bleached-out print of a movie with a lot of guys with big guns and bigger Afros. They ran and jumped and shot. They all wore leather and bright-colored, wide-legged pants made of unnatural fibers. They said, “That’s baaaad” as percussive, synthesized music perked behind them. The movies made their nonsensical way along, and then suddenly my mother said, “See, see, there I am, behind that guy, laying on the ground. That’s me.” Or she said, “That’s me in that booth.” Then Richard Roundtree or Gloria Hendry or Fred Williamson sprayed the room with gunfire, and my mother slumped over the table, her mouth open, her eyes closed. Blood seeped slowly out from under her enormous Afro.
I looked away from the television at the mother I knew. She smiled watching the gory death of her younger self. Her pleasure in her work was so pure, even though all she was doing was holding still as dyed Karo syrup drained from a Baggie under her wig onto a cheap Formica table.
My mother never said, but I knew, that I ended her acting career. I liked to think that my father was somebody like John Shaft, striding through the streets of Manhattan, a complicated man, a black private dick who was a sex machine to all the chicks. But I suspected that my father was a bit player like her. Thug #1. Or Man in Restaurant. Once I learned how dull a movie set is when you’re not running the show, I imagined the two of them, in those endless, drifting hours, slowly beginning to talk to each other, my mother looking up shyly but oddly direct, the low bass rumble of my father’s voice as he asked her name, then asked her out. They didn’t have folding canvas chairs, their names written on them, the way the director or the stars did. They would have started talking as they stood around in extras holding, a few words at a time. I imagine my mother looked at my father’s face and saw in it someone who would make everything perfect.
My mother believed in the power of movies and the people in them to change a life, change her life. I can count on my two hands the number of stories she’s told me about my father.
And then only when I’ve asked. She didn’t even tell me his name until I was grown. But exactly what she wore in the fight scene in Coffy? And what Pam Grier said to her before they started shooting? I’ve heard that story a thousand times. In that scene, Pam Grier rips my mother’s dress nearly off her body. It hangs, ragged, over her shoulders in two scarlet shards. She wears a fierce, sexy smile and a crooked, reddish wig. Her breasts are very beautiful. Here is what Pam Grier said to my mother right before filming began: “That dress looks good on you, girl. Too bad I gotta tear it.” My mother held these words as a talisman against whatever else life might bring her. Pam Grier thought she looked good.
When I told my mother I wanted to go to film school, she was silent for a long minute. Then she said, “Not too many women direct movies, do they?” “Not too many. But remember that movie The Piano? You never saw it, but that was a woman. And there’ve been others.” “Any of them black?
I hesitated. “A few. Julie Dash. Euzhan Palcy. Kasi Lemmons. You know how it is, Ma. Maybe I can help change that. Even if I can’t . . . it’s what I need to do.” “How you gonna pay for it?” “I’ll get a scholarship. I’ll borrow money. I’ll figure it out, Ma.” Ma looked at me. “Yeah, you probably will. I remember when I came out here. I was broke as hell. But it wasn’t much that could have stopped me. Guess that’s how I know you’re my girl. Hardheaded. Just like me.” So I applied to a lot of film schools.
I got into NYU.. I remember holding the admissions letter, staring at it, thinking, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese.
Stupid, huh? But that’s all I could think. I’d lived in Los Angeles my whole life. I knew New York from only a thouuuuusand noir pictures and Mean Streets and Sweet Smell of Success. (Here’s my favorite, favorite scene: when Burt Lancaster gazes over the lights of the city, hot jazz blasting behind him, and he says, “I love this dirty town.” My second favorite scene: when Burt, a key light under his chin to give him a menacing glow, says to Tony Curtis, “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”) I went to grad school in 1999. It took me three years after college, working like a dog, to get up the nerve and to earn the money to pay for it. I knew it wouldn’t be like a black-and-white movie. More like Do the Right Thing. But New York was still . . . so not LA. I thought it would be the home I never had, the place I should have been born.
I got in with a short I made about my mother. I did it in our kitchen. A couple of lights, my old video camera. I’d kept it working, even though I’d had it since I was twelve.
Her girlfriend, Sheila, was there, like always, but I framed the shots so that only her arm and hand were in the frame. The main thing you saw was my mother’s face. She was still so beautiful, her hair slicked back into a ponytail, her clothes just so, even on a Saturday afternoon. Maybe she had more lines around her eyes than she used to. I didn’t notice them until I looked through my viewfinder. “So, Ma,” I asked as the film rolled, “how’d you end up in Los Angeles?” “Couldn’t stand the country town I was from another minute.” She laughed. It was like the camera was her home.
“What country town was that?” “Tulsa, Oklahoma. You don’t get no more country than that, sweetheart. That is the countriest I ever hope to be.” “Did you always live there?” “’Til I was twenty.” A drag on the cigarette, a look out the window.
“Why’d you leave?” She looked back at the camera. Her eyes glowed in the late afternoon sunlight. “I was gonna be a movie star.” She smiled a little. “The biggest there ever was.” A slow lowering of the eyelids, another drag on the cigarette. “Didn’t work out that way, though. It hardly ever does.” “What do you think it would have been like if it had?” She smiled. “Good Lord, Tam, I don’t know.” She looked airily around our small apartment, then briefly at Sheila. “We’d have a house, that’s for sure. Not this ratty little apartment.
Maybe a pool. You’d have liked that when you were little, huh, Tam? I never really have been much of a swimmer. But that would have been nice. A house in the hills. Maybe a garden. And a big-ass car!” She yelled this last, then gave Sheila a high-five.
“We’d be rollin’. No more piece-of-crap used cars. That’s for damn sure.” She paused, picked up her cigarette again. Took a drag. As the smoke entered her lungs, she seemed to return to where she really was, who she was now. A forty-eight-year-old who was a receptionist for a plastic surgeon and rented DVDs and videos and looked for herself in the backgrounds of old movies. Her eyes narrowed. “But that’s not happening, is it?” Then she fell silent.
Later, when I looked at the footage, I was amazed. I’d never seen my mother look like this, so serious and direct. Always, whenever she was talking to me, her attention was elsewhere. But now, as I held the camera, she was there, fully present, every inch of her focused. Her eyes were shiny and hard. You couldn’t look away. I couldn’t figure out why her directors had never noticed that quality. You couldn’t see it when she wasn’t being filmed. But when she was? Good God. I couldn’t look away. I must have run the tape for an hour, over and over, looking for the words that would explain my mother’s life. House. Car. Damn.
Rollin’. A star. Gonna be a star.

Copyright © 2005 by Martha Southgate.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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