Shifting Through Neutral

Shifting Through Neutral

by Bridgett M. Davis


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Not yet a woman yet more than a little girl, Rae Dodson is caught up in her family's drama. Her hip older sister, Kimmie, whom her mother favors, has moved from New Orleans to join them in Detroit, a city that moves as if in synch with the Stevie Wonder tunes that play giddily from new automobiles fresh off the factory lots. Her bid whist–playing mother is as nervous as ever, and her father's chronic migraines seem less responsive to medication. And while they all occupy the same house, they might as well be living separate lives. When the tenuous peace finally breaks, Rae must decide where her loyalties lie: should she choose her emotionally distant mother, whom she adores, or her affectionate but needy father? Rae does choose and launches into a rich, loving relationship with her dad, for whom she shows a fierce, undying loyalty. But as she matures, she must find a way amid her own budding sexuality to be both Daddy's girl and her own woman.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060572501
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/03/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,022,637
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.73(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Bridgett M. Davis is an associate professor of English at the City University of New York's Baruch College, where she teaches creative writing and literature. A graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, she is the director of the award-winning feature film Naked Acts. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and son.

Read an Excerpt

Shifting Through Neutral

Chapter One

After he returned to me, I slept every night atop Daddy's broad back. He was a soft, wide man, and miraculously he remained still throughout our slumber -- never rolled over, never pushed me off. How that sleeping arrangement came to be I do not know, but it felt as natural to me as play. As easy as I'd learned the alphabet I learned to identify the reassuring aromas of maleness that sleeping with a man offered: unshaved face, snoring breath, end-of-the-day genitalia.

Even as a little girl, I knew my father needed me. He was a sick man in near-constant pain from migraines and unable to work. He needed me to fetch his medicine, to make cool compresses for his aching head, to massage his temples with my small hands. And he needed me to help fill his days. He left the house only when it was necessary to go to doctor's appointments, to buy food, to cash his pension check. Otherwise, he stayed close to home, not bothering to strike up friendly conversations with the neighbors. My father felt out of sync with these men, who walked out of their front doors each morning dressed in starched shirts and skinny ties, to civil jobs in government offices, their kinky hair kept low. He preferred to wear his hair in defiant waves like Cab Calloway, lie across his sofa bed dressed in elegant silky underwear, and watch daytime TV -- his ears perked for the sound of us schoolchildren walking home along Birchcrest Road, our high, pebbly voices drifting 6 into his open window. Other days, he read hard-luck paperbacks by the light of a naked bulb stuck in an old, shade-less lamp as a transistor radio tossed the blues into the room. He might sometimes drive his sleek gray Cutlass Supreme Oldsmobile to Mr. Alfred's auto body shop, where he'd shoot the breeze. But by the time I skipped up the walkway, book bag slung across my shoulder, face flush from conquering a new cursive letter or the secret to multiplying by nine, he was standing on the porch waiting to greet me. Together we wound through our evening of dinner, cards, TV, close sleep.

This is how Daddy remained alive for me all those years -- by settling into a life of simple actions, slow movements, perpetual rest. Speed brought throbbing headaches, and so he paced himself. When doing nothing still made his head hurt, he mitigated the pain with loose aspirin and later, sleep-inducing injections of Demerol -- eking out as many extra years as he could to embed himself, like a fossil, into my psyche. As a result, I formed myself out of the five o'clock shadow of his maleness.

He hadn't always been sick. The migraines didn't appear until he was thirty-two. Before then, his hypertension was symptom-free, allowing him to spend his young manhood like many migrated southern black men -- gratefully working overtime at factory jobs, eating neck bones and greens slow-cooked by wide-hipped women, playing hard every Friday night after payday.

But I only knew Daddy one way, apart from a few old photographs and scattered stories about his past -- as a doting father worn down by pain. It's the image I savor, the one I prefer. If he'd been a virile, healthy man when I entered his life, who is to say whether he would've stayed at home, giving so much of that life to me?

Daddy knew he was living on borrowed time. In four short years he went from experiencing monthly to weekly migraines -- the kind that lurked behind a low-grade headache, encroaching toward a blunt, excruciating throb that pulsed through his entire body for hours, leaving him nearly weeping and weak with exhaustion -- to daily ones. He was only thirty-six when granted disability from General Motors' assembly lines -- the youngest man in the auto company's history to do so. It must have seemed a financially prudent gesture on his employer's part, given that the company doctor diagnosed his condition as "extreme." It was surely a blow to his ego, finding himself stripped of a livelihood, facing mortality, still so young.

I was the one who over the years convinced myself his hypertension was a health quirk, an inconvenience to be put up with like a sinus condition or a heart murmur. One day as he drove us home from the doctor's office, when I was no longer a child, I asked Daddy, "Just how high is your blood pressure?" We were cruising along Livernois Avenue, past the neon signs of gas stations and the waving flags of car dealerships that added primary color to Detroit's main streets.

"I can't say, exactly," he answered.

"Why doesn't Dr. Corey ever take your pressure anymore?" I wanted to know, remembering a time when his doctor used to roll out the pressure monitor with the big name. The sphygmomanometer. We called it the spiggy. He'd wrap the cuff around Daddy's arm, pump air through the tube, frown as he studied the dial closely.

Daddy shrugged. "He can't. Numbers on the spiggy don't go high enough." And then he chuckled. "How's that for the puniness of modern medicine?"

I laughed too, believing he could beat it.

My parents, Vy and JD, met at a raucous card party when Mama was twenty-four and the single mother of a five-year-old girl named Kimmie. She told him she was divorced. He didn't care one way or the other, liking how she played bid whist -- bidding high even when she knew she couldn't win. He took her again and again to roaming cabarets, where they slow-danced to Sam Cooke tunes -- doing the social, as they called it -- while he sang into her ear of what a wonderful world it would be, causing tiny goose bumps to erupt down her neck. She was his kind of woman, high-class and good-looking ...

Shifting Through Neutral. Copyright © by Bridgett Davis. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Trisha R. Thomas

“Lyrical...addictive...haunting. This beautiful coming-of-age story and will assuredly capture many hearts.”

Martha Southgate

“A vibrant...journey through a young woman’s coming-of-age....Hop in—this novel is a ride well worth taking.

Elizabeth Strout

“Wonderful....In this book...there is...a poignancy that cuts incisively through the tender tissue of family love.”

Benilde Little

“Shifting Through Neutral is a beautifully rendered story by a writer to watch.”

Reading Group Guide


For Rae Datsun, the early 70s are as hopeful and promising as the prolific as the Peace signs. The signature sounds of Motown are filling Detroit's airwaves and the automobile factories are supporting a burgeoning middle class who work by day and play by night. Rae's hip, older sister has moved back home from New Orleans; her mother's nerves have calmed enough for her to stop taking her "vitamins"; and her father has new painkillers that ease his chronic migraines. But all that changes when Rae's mother suddenly takes off down a stretch of highway with her one true love, taking Rae's beloved sister along with her. Left to care for her ailing father, Rae grows up faster than any young girl should and is forced to confront the cracks in her world.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does the author show intimacy between Rae and her father? How does Rae react when her father begins to withdraw as she grows older?

  2. What is the significance of the title and how does it connect to the main characters' lives?

  3. How does music function throughout the book?

  4. How does Kimmie's death impact the dynamics of the relationships in the household?

About the author

Bridgett M. Davis is an associate professor of English at City University of New York's Baruch College, where she teaches film writing, journalism, and literature. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and son.

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Shifting Through Neutral 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
An excellent read!!! The imagery from the first page permeated through the book and made it impossible to put down. It's great I can't wait to read her next book she's a great author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I received the book as a gift, and just dove in not knowing what to expect. What fascinated me about this book immediately is how well the author conveys the sense of Rae's internal dialogue, more adult than child most of the time. Yet, Rae finds great moments of joy when she is functioning as an adult and as a child. You just root for her more during her childlike joys. This was not my only fascination with this book, but I don't want to taint your experience with it. It marked my fall; I bought a hammock and enjoyed reading it as the leaves dropped. Now I'm giving it to friends for Christmas.