• Tumbling
  • Tumbling


4.7 24
by Diane McKinney-Whetstone

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In her deeply textured debut novel, Diane McKinney-Whetstone evokes the feel and rhythm of a close-knit African-American community. Set in South Philadelphia during the 1940s and 1950s, Tumbling combines the mood of an urban community with the vitality of its inhabitants to tell a story in which sorrow and joy come in equal measure. One unconventional couple is at the…  See more details below


In her deeply textured debut novel, Diane McKinney-Whetstone evokes the feel and rhythm of a close-knit African-American community. Set in South Philadelphia during the 1940s and 1950s, Tumbling combines the mood of an urban community with the vitality of its inhabitants to tell a story in which sorrow and joy come in equal measure. One unconventional couple is at the heart of the novel; Herbie and Noon care deeply for each other but have been unable to consummate their marriage because of a vicious sexual attack in Noon's past. So, while Noon finds comfort and solace in her church, club-hopping Herbie finds friendship and sexual gratification with a jazz singer named Ethel. Unexpectedly, Herbie and Noon are blessed with daughters when, on two separate occasions, children are left on their doorstep. On the advice of the community, they take the children into their home, where the girls become inseparable, as if blood sisters. When a devastating city proposal threatens to put a road through the area, the community must pull together to avoid being torn apart. Noon becomes the unexpected leader in the struggle to keep both her home and her family whole.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Sunday morning in South Philly, according to McKinney-Whetstone, is "like buttermilk," with "a quiet smoothness to it." The same can be said of this remarkable first novel. A gentle portrait of an African American community in South Philadelphia in the 1940s and '50s, the story probes beneath its residents' lives to tell a powerful tale of damage and healing. Noon is a Florida preacher's daughter too scarred from a secret childhood incident to let a man touch her; her husband, Herbie, is a redcap who met her when he was a hepcat jazz drummer touring with fiery singer Ethel. When newborn Fannie and, five years later, Ethel's five-year-old orphan niece, Liz, are abandoned on Noon and Herbie's doorstep, the embrace of community allows the creation of a family. Many women struggle in private against pain-especially Liz, who hides in the closet and eats plaster to deal with what she knows about Herbie and Ethel. Fannie's prescient visions and her wish to stave off the inevitable underscore an ambivalent view of the power of change. As the threat looms of a highway to be built through the church-centered neighborhood, individual characters find their fates, and the delicately passionate narrative coalesces around a soul-galvanizing metaphor of bricks and mortar and spirit. Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club selection. Author tour. (May)
Library Journal
It's been almost a year since Herbie and Noon were married, and still they've had no sexual contact. When Herbie finds a baby on their porch steps one night, he hopes things will change. When nothing happens, he continues to stay out late into the night and takes up with a local club singer. The club singer suddenly leaves to pursue another job, leaving her five-year-old niece in Herbie's care. Thus, Herbie and Noon now must raise two children, one who seems to have the ability to see into the future and another who enjoys eating the plaster off their closet walls. This is an intelligently written first novel set in Philadelphia during the 1940s. The author captures the time, emotions, and lives of the characters well, even if the novel slows down around the midway point. All in all, this will do well in large fiction collections.Shenise Ross, New York
Nikki Giovanni
What a wonderful experience to tumble into the world of Noone and her kin. A wonderful debut.
Victoria Valentine
Much like authors Gloriea Naylor and Connie Porter, McKinney-Whetstone has a knack for bringing the homes and neighborhoods of ordinary, hardworking black folks to life....A wonderful novel that follows a loving family's tumbles through life. -- San Francisco Chronicle
Cassandra Spratling
McKinney—Whetstone's debut novel presents a story full of suspense, tragedy, humor and, above all else, love—love as family and community.
—Cassandra Spratling,
Chicago Tribune
Richard Perry
Tumbling makes me marvel. It is smooth, sure—footed, wise as old folks, hip—hop street smart, a beam of laser light that illuminates the heart of the human condition. Prepare for deep laughter. Don't be surprised when you are moved to tears.
—(Richard Perry, author of No Other Tale To Tell)
Jabari Asim
McKinney—Whetstone's remarkably skillful first effort should place her at the forefront of a generation of emerging African—American women novelists.
—Jabari Asim, The Washington Post Book World
Kirkus Reviews
A bouncy, moody, musical—if improbable—debut by an author who, like a good blues singer, is strong on style and interpretation even while covering familiar material.

Echoes of Toni Morrison's Sula and Jazz pervade—without overwhelming—the story here, though to her credit McKinney- Whetstone's setting (Philadelphia in the 1940s and '50s) is an entirely original landscape in African-American fiction. The pavements and brownstones rattle and hum with the sounds, textures, and spirit of South Philly's black middle- and working-class residents. This is a novel crowded with characters, the most prominent and memorable being Noon, the book's wounded matriarch, a holy roller with a dark past, and her trying, wayward husband Herbie. He is jazz to her gospel, but the score of the couple's marriage changes abruptly when two girls, first an infant, then a five-year-old, are abandoned on their doorstep. The twin discoveries of the children's identities constitute dramatic, though incredible, subplots. More compelling are the girls' eventual love for each other, the chronicle of their adolescent growing pains, and a heated romantic rivalry over a slick developer. The contest for this man's affection unfolds against the specter of a proposed freeway being run through the neighborhood. The threatened displacement of family and friends also rends the girls' relationship. The two are eventually reconciled by the efforts of the novel's most sharp-edged figure, the blues singer Ethel, a hellion entangled with each of the main characters. McKinney-Whetstone convincingly presents the community's fight for self-determination as the outward manifestation of the psychic struggle of African-Americans during a period of tremendous social and cultural turmoil.

A gifted prose writer with a tremendous sense of place, McKinney-Whetstone shows the potential here to move up the ranks of novelists currently exploring the African-American experience.

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
P.S. Series
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Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

The black predawn air was filled with movement. Its thin coolness rushed through the streets of South Philly, encircling the tight, sturdy row houses. In l940 the blocks were clean and close. The people who lived here scrubbed their steps every morning until the sand in the concrete sparkled like diamond pins. Then some went to work mopping floors and cooking meals for rich folks, or cleaning fish at the dock, or stitching fine leather shoes or pinch-pleated draperies at the factories on the north side. Some answered phones or crumpled paper for the government. Some tended house and nursed babies. A few were really nurses. One or two taught school. Unless it was the weekend. On the weekend the blocks came to life. They'd cram into Club Royale, where redheaded olives danced in gold-colored liquid. And the music flowed like bubbly. And brown faces laughed for real, not the mannered tee-hees of the workday, but booming laughs. And Sunday they shouted in church and felt the sweet release where grand hats rocked, and high heels stomped or went clickety-clack depending on how the spirit hit.

Right now they slept. Especially if they'd been at Club Royale earlier. They were in a heavy sleep as the moving air wrapped around their chimneys, and stroked their curtained windows, and slid down their banisters. It breezed past the church where the bricks were gray and jutted into the dark air and even shone from the dew that was just beginning to settle. It shimmied over Pop's, the corner store famous for its glass jars filled with sweet pickled pigs' feet. And then dipped past the funeral home owned by the Saunderses, where the Model T hearse was usually parked out front. It blew over theplayground where a makeshift swing hanging with tufted, braided clothesline swayed to the rhythm of the dancing air. And then turned on through a short block where Cardplaying-Rose lived; the light from her basement meant that kings and queens and aces were slapping her fold-up table adorned with piles of red and green chips for quarters and dollars and IOUs. And then the night air moved all through Lombard Street and bounced up and down the long block where Noon and Herbie lived. Right now it caressed a brown cardboard box being slipped onto Noon and Herbie's middle step.

Copyright © 1996 by Diane McKinney-Whetstone

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What People are saying about this

Nikki Giovanni
What a wonderful experience to come out into the world of Noon and her kin. A warm and wonderful debut.
Richard Perry
Tumbling makes me marvel. It is smooth, sure-footed, wise as old folks, hip-hop street-smart, a beam of laser light that illuminates the heart of the human condition. Don't be surprised when you're moved to tears.

Meet the Author

Diane McKinney-Whetstone is the author of five acclaimed novels and the recipient of numerous awards, including the American Library Association's Black Caucus Literary Award for Fiction, which she won twice. She teaches fiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia with her husband, Greg.

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