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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.
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.
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
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
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 havehelped 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?