Tumbling

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Overview

Diane McKinney-Whetstone's lyrical first novel, Tumbling, vividly captures a tightly knit African-American neighborhood in South Philadelphia during the forties and fifties. Its central characters, Herbie and Noon, are a loving but unconventional couple whose marriage remains unconsummated for many years as Noon struggles to repossess her sexuality after a brutal attack in her past. While she seeks salvation in the church, Herbie gains sexual gratification in the arms of a bewitching jazz singer named Ethel, a ...

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Overview

Diane McKinney-Whetstone's lyrical first novel, Tumbling, vividly captures a tightly knit African-American neighborhood in South Philadelphia during the forties and fifties. Its central characters, Herbie and Noon, are a loving but unconventional couple whose marriage remains unconsummated for many years as Noon struggles to repossess her sexuality after a brutal attack in her past. While she seeks salvation in the church, Herbie gains sexual gratification in the arms of a bewitching jazz singer named Ethel, a woman who profoundly affects both Noon's and Herbie's lives when she leaves with them, first, a baby girl and then later, a five-year-old named Liz.

When a road planned by the city council threatens to break up this South Philadelphia neighborhood, the community must band together. Unexpectedly, Noon rises up and takes the lead in the opposition, fighting for all she's worth to keep her family and community together.

Tumbling is a beautiftilly rendered, poignant story about the ties that bind us and the secrets that keep us apart. With striking lyricism, Diane McKinney-Whetstone keenly guides us through the world of community, family, and the human heart.

In her debut novel, McKinney-Whetstone evokes the feel and rhythm of a close-knit African-American community. Set in South Philadelphia during the 1940s and 1950s, Tumbling tells the story of Herbie and Noon who, although they have never consummated their marriage, are blessed with daughters when, on two separate occasions, children are left on their doorstep.

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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

  • ISBN-13: 9780684837246
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • Publication date: 4/28/1997
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Diane McKinney-Whetstone:

When I started writing Tumbling, I had not given much thought to the time and place for the

setting of the story. Actually, I didn't even know what the story would be. I was only sure of

this: that I was approaching a significant birthday, that I'd always nursed a passion for writing

fiction, that I was using more energy forestalling my dream of writing a novel than it would

take just to sit down and start.

So I started. I got up at 5:00 every morning and spent two magical hours before it was time to

wake my teenage twins and dash off to my day job. I was unprepared for the unleashing that

happened—like a bottle of champagne uncorked, descriptions spilled all over the page. I soon

realized I was writing about my mother's time—South Philadelphia, 1940s-'50s. I'd grown up

with her stories about her clean, safe, close-knit neighborhood complete with her descriptions

of the stepscrubbing ritual. It seemed like such a vibrant era-the clubs, the music, the

excitement of the end of the war. And even though the era had a tremendous downside of

forced segregation for African-Americans, it was also a time of community connectedness. I

was also raised in the city, in a close-knit neighborhood, so I was able to draw on my

experiences as well.

Once I pinned down the setting, the characters took over—literally. They did unexpected things

on the page, they pulled the story one way, then another. I was losing control of the novel it

seemed. For example, I didn't—absolutely did not—want Herbie to run around with Ethel. I

liked Herbie too much for that, but the attraction between the two was on the page; it was

as if they were saying, "You, author, have no sayso here, just let us be true to our characters."

So I did. I began to trust the process of writing. It became okay for the novel to twist and

turn in directions I had not planned. I even began to welcome those times because the

unplanned actions were emerging as the strongest parts of the story.

For two years between 5:00 and 7:00 in the morning, I put the rest of my life on hold, my job

as a public affairs officer, my children, my husband, my volunteer commitments; I immersed

myself in the world of Tumbling instead. I followed the characters; I learned so much, about

writing for sure, but also about the big human themes—love and hate, good and evil, and

compassion, human nature, myself. What a powerful act of self-discovery writing this book

has been.

Reading Group Discussion Points

Other Books With Reading Group Guides

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

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 1940 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 the playground 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.

Noon was fast asleep this Saturday morning. Still two hours before her faithful church bells would give her the early risers' wake-up call. So she didn't hear quick swishes of leather against concrete rushing straight to her house. Nor did she stir when the rustling sound got louder as sweaty palms shifted the box gently along the steps so that it wouldn't tip. But if Noon or anyone else on the whole of Lombard Street had been only half awake, she surely would have heard the singular whisper tinged with a sadness that was dark as the night. The air heard it, and swallowed it up, and whipped around the corner to push Herbie on home.

Herbie was wide-awake, walking through the streets as the air nudged him on. Heading in after a night of clapping to the beat, then hanging later at Royale because he'd heard Ethel might be coming back, then stepping outside of Royale and running right into Bow, the barber who cut hair at the end of Herbie's block, and having to suffer through a lecture about the wages of sin and ignorance, Herbie appreciated the way the moving air was at his back. He needed a push to get home. The red and white candy cane lamp in front of Bow's barbershop made Herbie mad again as he thought about Bow's finger wagging in his face and his voice all in his ear saying, "Boy, you got a good wife, stop trying to live the fast life, chasing women and hanging in those clubs."

He got some nerve, Herbie thought. He ought to be glad my sweet, pretty mama taught me to respect my elders, or I would have yanked his finger and told him to mind his own business. Herbie kicked at the air as he walked past Bow's. He didn't consider himself a woman chaser anyhow. There was his wife, Noon. And there was Ethel. At least there had been Ethel. He hadn't seen her in several months. But now the thought of her roundness filled his head, the way she moved like fire and made the air crackle when she laughed. The thought warmed him as he pushed up Lombard Street toward home.

The air was moving faster now, impatiently, rushing ahead of Herbie and then doubling back to egg him on. He pulled his jacket closer and picked up his pace. His house was in the middle of a long block. For the past year he and his wife, Noon, lived here with people mostly like him who used to live in the South too. Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi. They brought their dialects, their gospel music and blues, their love for Jesus, children, and candied yams. A few had been here all along, so they said. Like Noon's pastor, Reverend Schell. "My daddy's daddy worked for Harriet Tubman," Reverend Schell was often heard to proclaim. The stories of the perilous journeys on the "Railroad" made for rich metaphor many a Sunday about making it to the promised land. Except that Herbie got it secondhand from Noon. He rarely went to church, didn't particularly care for Reverend Schell's dramatics, and had a few "railroad" stories of his own, as he was a redcap, a porter, at the Thirtieth Street train station.

The air was really dancing now, and whistling, and made Herbie step even faster. Noon would be asleep, he was sure of that. Just as well, he thought, with her problem and all when it came time for them to mix pleasures, just as well. When he thought about Noon, his guilt vibrated in his chest like a tuning fork sitting where his lungs should be. Good churchgoing woman she was. Didn't go to card parties or speakeasies. Content to take care of him and her church business and roast a turkey for somebody's wedding or fry chicken for the gathering after somebody's funeral, or sew organza dresses for somebody's girls for Easter. Nice things. He was almost sorry he was warmed by thoughts of Ethel. But then he pictured Ethel's lips, the thickness and redness, and her drooping eyes that always seemed to be moaning, "baby, baby," and he thought about Noon and her problem, and Bow's finger wagging in his face, and all he could do was say, "Damn," out loud to only the moving air.

The box sat patiently on the steps as Herbie approached his house. He might have tripped over it except that pink yarn fringes hung over the edges. They rippled in the breeze and startled the night as they moved. They startled Herbie too. "What the hell?" he murmured as he stopped sharply and nudged the box with his foot. He pulled back the pink covering. He peered into the box.

He stood straight up. He pulled at the end of his long, thin nose and rubbed his hand hard across his head. How many beers had he had at Royale? Only two, not even enough to make him miss a step, certainly not enough to make the night do a strangeness on his mind. He reached in his jacket pocket and snatched out a tin filled with red-topped stick matches. He struck a match and cupped his hands to protect the flame from the air that was circling him in wispy drafts. He leaned into the box guided by the fire. A baby. Damn sure was. Somebody had left a baby right here on his steps.

He sat down on the steps next to the box. He lifted out a dark-haired infant swaddled in a loosely knitted bright pink blanket. His hands felt clumsy and large as he held the baby like a chicken he had just pulled from a crate of ice on Ninth Street. The baby jerked and then cried a loud, agitated cry. "Shit," Herbie said. "You gonna go and do all that crying, someone will think I'm out here trying to hurt you. I'm only trying to figure this out." He brought the baby to his chest. Awkwardly at first. And then he worked up a smooth, gentle rocking motion. The baby hushed. He rested the infant along the length of his thighs. He lit another match and held it high like a torch so he could see the baby's face. He saw the eyes. Dark as coals that shocked him first, then softened him to putty. "What you looking at, huh?" he whispered into the eyes. "You can't see me nohow; don't y'all stay blind till you much older than this?" He felt silly. He had never talked to an infant before. He thought that he should run in the house and wake Noon; she would know what to do. Surely they'd have to turn the baby over to the authorities, but in the meantime Noon would know what to do about feeding it and changing it. He caught himself calling the baby "it" and then wondered if it was really a girl child. "You gotta be a girl, right? I mean, they got you all in pink, I'm just gonna have to trust that you a girl."

The eyes pierced through the predawn air that had gotten quiet around them now and held him as he talked. He knew where he had seen these eyes. Not just their blackness or their roundness, but deep inside, beyond the physical, these eyes had a knowingness about them, a familiarity; these were his mother's eyes. He'd seen eyes like these from time to time after his mother's death: a stray dog that would hang around their Mississippi country house and shock him with his mother's stare, a bird that would allow him to get closer than any normal bird and then look straight through to his soul the way his mother used to do, even the pantry mouse that he couldn't kill because it gripped him with his mother's eyes. His mother came back to him again and again in the eyes. But never before in a human's eyes.

He wondered then where the baby had come from. Dropped out of the sky to stare at him and reinforce Bow's warnings about trying to live the fast life? He dismissed that. His superstitions had their limit. He let the flame go out and drew the child closer into his chest and cradled her head in one hand and, with a deftness that surprised him, rummaged through the box with the other. "Shameful, abandoning you out here under the cover of night like this. No note saying what your name is or nothing. Diapers in here. Bottle in here too. No reason, though; they packed everything in here except the reason why." He stood, still holding the baby's head close to his chest. She smelled of cocoa butter and talc. He rubbed his chin against her hair, which was thick and soft. "I'll take you in to Noon and let her change you and do all that tending-to business." The baby nestled her head in the crook of his neck. He stopped short. He had never had such a sensation as this. As if a blanket of warmth had just peeled away from the chill of the night and covered them both. The air let out a deep contented sigh as Herbie stepped through his front door, holding the baby close as he went.

"Noon," he yelled, once inside the door. "Noon, you gotta come down here and see this. Noon!" He trod tenuously across the buffed-up shine of the hardwood floor. He held the baby's head to his chest as he walked. He stepped onto the thick circle of a throw rug in the center of the room and yanked the cord that turned on the living room chandelier. He eased the baby's head back in his palm so he could see her in the swaying light of the chandelier.

"Herbie, that you? What you got that bright light on in the middle of the night for? Coming in here talking loud this time of night, what's all the commotion?" Noon's voice was generous like her round face, her bow-shaped hips, and her healthy legs. It was what had attracted Herbie to her in the first place, the hips and the legs. He could see the print of the hips even now as she rushed down the stairs in a thick quilted robe.

"Lord have mercy! Where in Jesus name did you get that baby? Where it come from, Herbie?"

"On the steps. I was on my way in from Royale, and this box was on the steps."

"On what steps? Royale's? Ours?" She pulled back Herbie's arm and gently took the baby from him. "And where's the box? Maybe there's a note or something in there."

"Still on the steps, on our steps, I wouldn't go looking through no boxes left on anybody else's steps." He went back out the front door to bring the box in. The space between his chin and his shoulder still held the warmth of the baby's body right where she had nestled her head.

"It is a girl, right?" he asked as he walked back into the living room and put the box at Noon's feet. She was now on the couch smiling exaggerated smiles and otherwise animating her face as she cooed and clucked and amused the contents of the pink covering.

"Oh, yeah, I done already checked her out, she's a girl for real, a newborn baby girl, can't be more than a week by the looks of the cord, and she's gonna need changing she is." She talked more to the baby than to Herbie.

Herbie hovered over Noon as she undid the loosely knitted blanket and inspected the baby's limbs and fingers and toes. "Diapers in the box." He said it with authority. "And be careful with her head."

"Scuse me, Mr. Herbie." Noon turned and looked at him, her small, slanted eyes filled with exclamation. "I been taking care of infants since I was ten; I do know how to hold a baby. I'm just surprised you was able to even get her up the steps and in the house without snapping her spine."

"Well, I did. I even stopped her from crying when we were out front. It just came natural. She was good and content with me holding her too till you came and snatched her right outta my hands."

"I declare 'fore God! You seem to have gotten mighty attached to this baby. I thought a baby was the farthest thing from your mind."

"No, it's just that I can hardly get close enough to you to put you in a family way." He saw Noon flinch, even from where he was standing, looking down on her head that she turned from him. He could see her scalp tighten through the brown twisted papers that she used to curl her hair. He stopped and breathed in hard and said, "I'm sorry, Noon, I shouldn't have said that."

Noon's face was round and soft brown, and the print of her cheekbones was usually lost in the roundness, except that they were showing now as she ground her teeth and swallowed hard, trying to swallow the hurt that always surfaced as a ball in her throat whenever he reminded her of her bedroom problem. It was all Noon could do to just pull her defenses up like a girdle to keep him from seeing the hurt.

Right now the baby helped. "Mercy, mercy," she said, ignoring Herbie, "You 'bout the cutest baby I ever did see, look at those eyes."

"The eyes are something, aren't they?" Herbie said excitedly as he pushed into the space between Noon and the arm of the couch. "What those eyes look like to you?"

"Like black diamonds, that's what they look like." Noon took her voice down to a whisper. The baby's eyes held Noon too. "Wish those eyes could tell me who left you, why they leave you on our steps, who would do such a thing, on a chilly night too, even if they did have you good and bundled. Do they know me, whoever left you, or did they just leave you arbitrarily like?"

The room was completely quiet except for Noon's whispers and the baby's light breathing that sounded like sighs. The chandelier swayed to the hushed rumble of Noon's voice. Herbie pressed himself into the couch and stared in the baby's eyes. He got the same gush of warmth that he had on the steps when she nestled her head along his shoulder.

He fingered the infant's thumb and touched her hair lightly. "Wonder who her parents are, she real light, look to be half white."

"She don't have her true color yet." Now Noon spoke with authority. "Her true color is in the tip of her ears." She pulled the blanket from around the baby's ears. "See, the tips of her ears just a little darker than the rest of her, that's the color she gonna be, good and yellow."

"I done told you 'bout calling people yellow, woman." Herbie said it playfully, mockingly, trying to soften Noon and make up for his sarcasm a minute ago.

"All right, golden then, she gonna be a golden color, like a piece of cornbread." Noon got quiet then as she looked from the newborn to Herbie. The dark hair, the coal black eyes, the light skin, Herbie and the baby had these in common in a striking way. Noon couldn't think it. Suppose this was Herbie's baby. Suppose this whole business of a box on the steps was a made-up tale. Suppose he had just crept from some hellhole with some harlot and had just finished telling her that his wife will take this baby, she can't have any of her own because she can't mix pleasures with a man. She cringed at the thought. Except that she knew Herbie better than that. Terrible liar he was. Lean face showed off every muscle twitch when he was nervous. Thick dark brows couldn't do anything but recess when he was ashamed, even his lips, which were short and full, tightened involuntarily when he was guilty. She watched him as he sat transfixed by the baby's stare. His wide shoulders were rounded, relaxed. He found the box on the steps, she believed that for sure.

When she spoke again, she said, "Guess we gonna have to turn her over to the authorities come daybreak."

"Guess we will," he agreed. "Sure can't keep her. That could get us both locked up." His words felt like lead coming out. He was hoping Noon would say, "We not hardly turning this chile over. No, no, no."

Copyright © 1996 by Diane McKinney-Whetstone

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Introduction

Reading Group Discussion Points
  1. What details does McKinney-Whetstone provide that so wonderfully evoke the setting of that South Philly neighborhood during the forties and fifties? How do McKinney-Whetstone's colorful characters, such as Next-Door-Jeanie and Cardplaying-Rose enliven this neighborhood and further evoke the setting? How does the setting help define the themes in Tumbling?
  2. Compare and contrast the characters of Noon and Ethel, Liz and Fannie, Willie and Herbie. How do McKinney-Whetstone's female characters differ from her male characters? How do her female characters view her male characters and vice versa? For example, what is Ethel's view of men? What is Liz's?
  3. The family at the center of Tumbling -- Noon and Herbie -- is highly unconventional. Describe the ways in which this is so. Discuss the irony implicit in Noon's raising Fannie and Liz. McKinney-Whetstone writes, "Agreeing to Liz's staying just because that's what Noon wanted would keep his spine erect. Keep it from buckling, warping, even snapping in two from the extra weight he carried in his heart." Discuss the irony of Herbie's acceptance of Liz into the family as his way of counteracting the guilt he feels for his infidelity. What problems does this create that keep the family off balance? Discuss the ways in which the family is ultimately a success.
  4. Noon spends more than 20 years married to Herbie, unable to consummate their marriage because of a bizarre and cruel sexual attack which took place when she was a young girl. Why doesn't she tell Herbie? Would it have helped? How do you judgeHerbie for seeking sexual gratification from other women? Was there anything Herbie might have done that could have helped Noon overcome her apprehensions? At the close of the novel, Noon is able to consummate her marriage. What finally enables her to do so?
  5. Though Ethel is seldom in South Philadelphia living among the other characters of Tumbling, her presence is felt and a strong, vivid portrait of her emerges. Describe this portrait. How does McKinney-Whetstone create and maintain Ethel's presence throughout the novel? How does Ethel become a central figure in Tumbling despite her near constant absence? Discuss her profound impact on the lives of Noon, Herbie, Liz, and Fannie.
  6. How does McKinney-Whetstone prepare us for the truth that Ethel is Fannie's mother and Herbie is her father? What clues does she provide?
  7. Fannie is blessed with a seeing eye -- a "part of her that could see around corners and sometimes into tomorrow." Do her visions have an effect on the other characters? Do they alter any characters' lives? Do her visions alter events? If so, what events? How does Fannie distinguish between her seeing eye and her imagination?
  8. Liz develops an unusual habit of breaking up and actually eating the walls in her closet. The habit begins when she lives with Ethel and continues after she moves in with Noon, Herbie, and Fannie. Her habit grows over the years, and she becomes more and more devoted to hiding it. Why do you think she eats plaster? What does it symbolize? How does she use this habit as a crutch?
  9. McKinney-Whetstone does not focus on the subject of racism, yet it is a presence in Tumbling. For example, when the court officer comes to Noon's house to deliver a notice, McKinneyWhetstone writes, "He muttered 'fucking nigger' and pushed past her and was out of the door. 'Got some nerve calling somebody a nigger,' Noon said to his back as she quickly scanned the papers. 'You that, plus a fool....... Where else do we feel the presence of racism in the novel? How does the imminent building of the road become another example of racism? Is there any evidence of compassion between the races?
  10. What does the building of the road represent in Tumbling? What does it represent to the characters -- to Noon, to Next-Door-Jeanie, to Willie, to Liz and Fannie? Of what larger metaphor might the road be representative? How does the road serve to galvanize and heighten the relationships in Noon and Herbie's family as well as in the community? It turns out that the road is a fraud. What lies beneath this deception? And since the road becomes the central crisis in the novel, the fact that it is a deception casts the story in a new light. What is this new light?
  11. Secrets play an important role in Tumbling. Almost everyone has one-Noon, Herbie, Willie, Ethel, Liz, Fannie, and Reverend Schell. What are their secrets and what effect does keeping them have on their relationships to one another? By the end of the novel are all the secrets revealed? How are the characters' relationships altered by the revelation of secrets? What effect do secrets have on a family?
Recommended Readings

Women, Race, and Class, Angela Davis

July's People, Nadine Gordimer

Killing Rage, bell hooks

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

Sarah's Psalm, Florence Ladd

The Serpent's Gift, Helen Elaine Lee

The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

Sula, Toni Morrison

The Women of Brewster Place, Gloria Naylor

Possessing the Secret of Joy, Alice Walker

The Wedding, Dorothy West

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Discussion Points
  1. What details does McKinney-Whetstone provide that so wonderfully evoke the setting of that South Philly neighborhood during the forties and fifties? How do McKinney-Whetstone's colorful characters, such as Next-Door-Jeanie and Cardplaying-Rose enliven this neighborhood and further evoke the setting? How does the setting help define the themes in Tumbling?
  2. Compare and contrast the characters of Noon and Ethel, Liz and Fannie, Willie and Herbie. How do McKinney-Whetstone's female characters differ from her male characters? How do her female characters view her male characters and vice versa? For example, what is Ethel's view of men? What is Liz's?
  3. The family at the center of Tumbling — Noon and Herbie — is highly unconventional. Describe the ways in which this is so. Discuss the irony implicit in Noon's raising Fannie and Liz. McKinney-Whetstone writes, "Agreeing to Liz's staying just because that's what Noon wanted would keep his spine erect. Keep it from buckling, warping, even snapping in two from the extra weight he carried in his heart." Discuss the irony of Herbie's acceptance of Liz into the family as his way of counteracting the guilt he feels for his infidelity. What problems does this create that keep the family off balance? Discuss the ways in which the family is ultimately a success.
  4. Noon spends more than 20 years married to Herbie, unable to consummate their marriage because of a bizarre and cruel sexual attack which took place when she was a young girl. Why doesn't she tell Herbie? Would it have helped? How do you judge Herbie for seeking sexual gratification from other women? Was there anything Herbie might have done that could have helped Noon overcome her apprehensions? At the close of the novel, Noon is able to consummate her marriage. What finally enables her to do so?
  5. Though Ethel is seldom in South Philadelphia living among the other characters of Tumbling, her presence is felt and a strong, vivid portrait of her emerges. Describe this portrait. How does McKinney-Whetstone create and maintain Ethel's presence throughout the novel? How does Ethel become a central figure in Tumbling despite her near constant absence? Discuss her profound impact on the lives of Noon, Herbie, Liz, and Fannie.
  6. How does McKinney-Whetstone prepare us for the truth that Ethel is Fannie's mother and Herbie is her father? What clues does she provide?
  7. Fannie is blessed with a seeing eye — a "part of her that could see around corners and sometimes into tomorrow." Do her visions have an effect on the other characters? Do they alter any characters' lives? Do her visions alter events? If so, what events? How does Fannie distinguish between her seeing eye and her imagination?
  8. Liz develops an unusual habit of breaking up and actually eating the walls in her closet. The habit begins when she lives with Ethel and continues after she moves in with Noon, Herbie, and Fannie. Her habit grows over the years, and she becomes more and more devoted to hiding it. Why do you think she eats plaster? What does it symbolize? How does she use this habit as a crutch?
  9. McKinney-Whetstone does not focus on the subject of racism, yet it is a presence in Tumbling. For example, when the court officer comes to Noon's house to deliver a notice, McKinneyWhetstone writes, "He muttered 'fucking nigger' and pushed past her and was out of the door. 'Got some nerve calling somebody a nigger,' Noon said to his back as she quickly scanned the papers. 'You that, plus a fool....... Where else do we feel the presence of racism in the novel? How does the imminent building of the road become another example of racism? Is there any evidence of compassion between the races?
  10. What does the building of the road represent in Tumbling? What does it represent to the characters — to Noon, to Next-Door-Jeanie, to Willie, to Liz and Fannie? Of what larger metaphor might the road be representative? How does the road serve to galvanize and heighten the relationships in Noon and Herbie's family as well as in the community? It turns out that the road is a fraud. What lies beneath this deception? And since the road becomes the central crisis in the novel, the fact that it is a deception casts the story in a new light. What is this new light?
  11. Secrets play an important role in Tumbling. Almost everyone has one-Noon, Herbie, Willie, Ethel, Liz, Fannie, and Reverend Schell. What are their secrets and what effect does keeping them have on their relationships to one another? By the end of the novel are all the secrets revealed? How are the characters' relationships altered by the revelation of secrets? What effect do secrets have on a family?
Recommended Readings

Women, Race, and Class, Angela Davis

July's People, Nadine Gordimer

Killing Rage, bell hooks

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

Sarah's Psalm, Florence Ladd

The Serpent's Gift, Helen Elaine Lee

The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

Sula, Toni Morrison

The Women of Brewster Place, Gloria Naylor

Possessing the Secret of Joy, Alice Walker

The Wedding, Dorothy West

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 24 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(19)

4 Star

(4)

3 Star

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2 Star

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 5, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A must read work of African American fiction

    Tumbling is one of the quintessential books for lovers of epic tales that follow a family from the the beginning to a dramatic end. This is not a another gangster tale but a narrative of a family trying to survive in the post Civil Rights era and shows a neighborhood that is attempting to move forward.

    The tale follows to sisters, different in more ways then can be imagined, and their hardworking yet loving parents through a series of incidents that are weaved like silk. You will come to love the characters in this book immediately and you will remember their names for all time.

    This is quite simply one of the best books I have ever read.

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  • Posted August 13, 2009

    Tumbling Review (no spoilers)

    This book was really entertaining. All the characters were great and could be related to on different levels, especially if your from Philly. "Tumbling" packs a powerful punch with a touch of old school and a lesson on the importance of family.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 2, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Great Read!!!

    Once again Mrs. Whetstone masters another story...I read this book after reading Blues Dancing, Leaving Cecil Street, and Tempest Rising. And all have consistently been great!!! What a talented writer Whetstone is. In Tumbling she tackles family, love, and loyalty. I LOVED IT!!! You'll fall in love with the characters...even no good Willie Mann, so read it!!! You won't be sorry...

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  • Posted December 31, 2008

    Absolutely Fantastic!

    I am so pleased to have stumbled across this book! I was sorry that I hadn't know about it when it was originally published.<BR/><BR/>The writing is excellent, the characters are familiar and the story line is captivating!<BR/><BR/>I am looking for more books by this author -- she is a winner!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2007

    Wonder interpretation of a disfunctional and loving couple

    The book was an absolute page turner. You were in the moment and felt what they felt. Though you could imagine what would happen next,you had to read it to find out.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2005

    The best !!!

    This one was the best she's ever written! And I like all of her books. I haven't read one yet that I didn't like...

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2004

    EXCELLENT!!!

    This book put you in the lives of these characters so vividly. I felt like I knew them all, I felt like I lived in that time period. It was well written and I just could not put it down. A must read! It's what love & family are made of.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2004

    Hidden Pain

    Almost everyone has deep, dark secrets that they feel should never see the light of day. For some it may be childhood feelings of insecurity, rejection from a should-be lover, the scars of abuse gone unchecked, or shame beyond measure. But, how often do we take the time to peel those layers of hurt and pain away from our psyches as we attempt to go on about our daily lives? Not often, and such is the case for the characters of 'Tumbling', Diane McKinney Whetstone's brilliant debut novel. 'Tumbling' centers around one of our most basic desires as human beings--the desire to love and to be loved in return. Set in a blue collar community in Philadelphia, ''Tumbling' explores the lives of several ordinary citizens--ordinary meaning that they all have their crosses to bear. Noon, abused as a child has lost the right to her 'womanliness.' Herbie, her husband, is the hapless victim caught up in a no-win situation--loving his 'good' wife, while seeking fulfillment in the arms of a sexy, nightclub singer named Ethel. When Herbie comes home late from a jaunt at Club Royale and finds a deserted infant on his steps, he and Noon's lives are given new meaning. They are blessed several years later with a playmate for their only child in the form of another abandoned castaway. With plenty of love to divert their attention away from themselves, Herbie and Noon are content to raise their children with the very best that they have to offer. However, their refusal to deal with and resolve past issues comes back to haunt them, and what was once maintained in nice, neat, organized bundles becomes the crumbling plaster that makes the walls come tumbling down. - Rosalind Stormer, author of 'Healing the Breach', Flavah Reviewer

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2002

    A Great Page Turner, Although Not Complete

    Though this book definitely captivated my attention, there were just some points that made it 'oh too good to be true'. Everyone who's read the book knows about the 'problem' that the wife, Noon had with her husband Herbie. That in itself seemed a little unrealistic to me. The fact that a man and a woman can be married 20 years and not consummate that marriage is way too far-fetched. Even the reason why the wife is so cold towards her husband was stretched out far beyond the limits of actual reality. Then the two girls left on their doorstep for them to raise-to be honest, I don't think that things like this happen in African-American communities, especially in the 1940's. I think the writer was very explicit when it came to detail, and this is what I appreciated most about the story. The author is undoubtly talented, although I felt that the story should have been played down a bit in order to make the reader be able to access it a little better. I appreciate great fiction, but when that fiction is stretched beyond the limits, it almost has a sort of supernatural appeal to it, which definitely does not suit novels that are supposed to reflect the struggle of blacks in America. Despite my negative aspects of the book, I personally think it is worth checking out.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2002

    great story

    i fell that this book had a great story, and it seamed very realistic. I is something that can happen in real life and it had a great ending.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 18, 2002

    End to end captivating

    I enjoyed the author. It was refreshing to read a story with seem-so-real characters. The 40s and 50s southern living made me wish for those days again. It was also refreshing to read a story line without the hip-hop flavor. I could not put the book down and the ending will surprise you. I immediately started looking for other books she wrote and will order the Tempest Rising and Blue Dancing.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2001

    She's the Best Black Female Author Around

    If you've never read McKinney-Whetstone's work, do it NOW! Her novels are so engaging. She gives just enough detail to make you feel like you're right there. I've read all her books and I all of them are my favorites. Please read Tumbling, then Tempest Rising, then Blues Dancing. They're all really good. If you really like to read and get engrossed in novels, then her books are for you. I hate when a good book ends. I've read one of her books three times.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2001

    This book is off the chain!

    This book is one of three books and I have yet to find an author that has the same writing style that she does. The book grabs from the beginning and even after reading it, you are still left wondering when is this author going to write another book?! THE ABSOLUTE BEST BOOK (besides Blessings and Tempest Rising)I have read. I HIGHLY recommend it!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2001

    Kia's Review

    Tumbling gives a great insight on the life of nortern african americans in the ealy fourties. This is a book about a black coulpes struggle with thir marriage and raising two girls that were left on their doorstep. This book shows you how to contiue going even when times get hard. It shows you how you can keep the faith in God when times are at their worst and know that he will come right on time. I found it to be inspirational. These were some of the hardeat times for blacks, but Noon and Herbie showed that anything is possible.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2001

    One of the best books I have ever read!

    A book I could not put down! From cover to cover it has you feeling like you are right there in the midst of all the drama. The author out-did herself on this one. She is wonderful!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 29, 2000

    Fabulous!

    What a fabulously woven tale! Although I had a good guess on a few things that turned out to be correct, I was never bored or disappointed. I look forward to reading other books by Whetstone.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2000

    One of my favorites

    'Tumbling' is one of the best books that i have read. I couldn't force myself to put it down. The author did an outstanding job with the characters and the story as a whole.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2000

    Excellent book

    I read 'Tumbling' also, they are both excellent books! Ms. Whetstone is a wonderful writer.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2000

    Family Times

    The sign of the times is definetly evident in 'Tumbling.' The History of bebop, saddness of war, love affairs, and child abandonment lies within all family tree lines with drama. Most times it's never told, but the secrets is what makes Tumbling a page turner. A good sub-title would be 'Secrets' or 'Bebop times in Philadelphia.' Overall McKinney-Whetstone keeps it real with the family. She demonstrates how people we love and trust, hurt us the most and this never fails. I liked the part most about religion and God which is, presented to the reader as separate issues. Tumbling proves that it's how you find God within yourself and the way you see it ----- just so long as you see it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2000

    Wonderful Reading

    This short nover was so good to read, I liked how the characters related with one another..The story line was very realistic. I would suggest everyone to read this one, reading is wonderful for your mind.

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