This is not a sad book, but the trials and tribulations it describes are not happy occurrences. Like the powerful book Pull by B. A. Binns (see my review here), this is another book about a boy and a girl who must go live with their grandparents after the father kills the mother. Also as in Pull, the mother had been physically abused for some time, with the father assuring the male child that this is one of the ways in which “manhood” is demonstrated. Whereas Pull features teens a bit older, the two kids in What Momma Left Me are in the seventh and eighth grade. Also, the grandparents in this book are very involved in the church; in fact, the grandfather is the pastor of the Restoration Baptist Church. This book can probably be categorized as “Christian fiction.”
Each chapter title is a part of The Lord’s Prayer, which is cleverly dovetailed to reflect what is going on the life of the characters. (For example, in Chapter One, titled “Our Father,” we learn about the father of the kids.) The narrator is Serenity Evans, age 13, who is ostensibly writing this as entries in a diary.
As the story begins, Serenity and her brother Danny have just moved in with their grandparents, where they come to learn that men (like their grandfather) can actually dispense love instead of just fear, and where they come to terms with their losses:
“Memories of my momma pop in my head at the most unexpected times. Like when I sing the lyrics to a song I didn’t even realize I knew. Momma is a song that I can’t forget. Her melody comes to mind and I realize that traces of her song are still here.”
Serenity has a crisis of faith when things keep going wrong; she thinks God is cruel and has forgotten about her and her friends. After pretending too many times to be sick so she doesn’t have to go to church, she finally confesses her internal conflict to her grandmother. Her Grandma has the perfect answer for Serenity, explaining it to her in a way they can both relate to: Serenity’s mother’s fabulous red velvet cake. Her Grandma explains: you would hate to eat just the oil, or just the flour, or just the raw eggs. But in the end, when they all come together, something beautiful emerges. Life, Grandma says, is like that too.
Discussion: In a bit of twist on the concept of “whitewashing,” we have a wonderfully sweet cover featuring an adorable young black girl holding a cake. The color of the protagonist is not whitewashed at all, but one might say that the plot is, in the sense of glossing over or covering up. This is a book about domestic violence, child sexual abuse, drug trading, and drug use. Yes, it is all soft-pedaled to be appropriate for a middle-grade or tween audience, and it is furthermore couched in a great deal of religious explanation and inspiration.
Evaluation: Uplifting story about how to cope when bad things happen in your life told by a very likeable young girl in a Christian context. It is promulgated as a young adult book, but to me, the writing seems more characteristic of middle grade books.
Published by Bloomsbury Books for Young Readers, 2010