Tumbling: A Novel (P.S.)

Overview

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...
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Overview

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.

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
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
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
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: 9780594434276
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/29/2010
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (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

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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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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

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Reading Group Guide

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 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?

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