The Darkest Child
Dolores Phillips, 2004
SoHo Press, Inc.
Rozelle Quinn is so fair-skinned that she can pass for white. Yet everyone in her small Georgia town knows. Rozelle's ten children (by ten different daddies) are mostly light, too. They sleep on the floor in her drafty, rickety three-room shack and live in fear of her moods and temper. But they are all vital to her. They occupy the only world she rules and controls. They multiply her power in an otherwise cruel and uncaring universe.
Rozelle favors her light-skinned kids, but insists that they all love and obey her unquestioningly. Tangy Mae, thirteen, is her brightest but darkest-complected child. Tangy wants desperately to continue with her education. Shockingly, the highest court in the land has just ruled that Negroes may go to school with whites. Her mother, however, has other plans.
Rozelle wants her daughter to work, cleaning houses for whites, like she does, and accompany her to the "Farmhouse," where Rozelle earns extra money bedding men. Tangy Mae, she's decided, is of age.
This is the story from an era when life's possibilities for an African-American were unimaginably different. (From the publisher.)
Delores Phillips was born in Georgia. She is a graduate of Cleveland State University and works as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital in Cleveland. The Darkest Child is her first novel. (From the publisher.)
For readers who like their novels king-sized, filled with grand plot events and clearly identifiable villains and victims, Delores Phillips's debut novel, The Darkest Child, will not disappoint. This story of an African-American mother and her large family is loaded with killings, maimings and other sensational turns.... For all the strengths of the story itself, Tangy [the narrator] remains...capable of more insight than she ultimately displays. At critical junctures, she fails to see her world and its circumstances with enough sophistication and clarity to convince us that all is true and valid.... Tangy's naiveté is problematic in a novel that is otherwise lush with detail and captivating with its story of racial tension and family violence, a story that requires a clearer and more probing eye in order to portray its many complexities.
Lee Martin - Washington Post
Evil's regenerative powers and one girl's fierce resistance. . . . A book that deserves a wide audience.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Phillips's searing debut reveals the poverty, injustices and cruelties that one black family suffers—some of this at the hands of its matriarch—in a 1958 backwater Georgia town. Thirteen-year-old Tangy Mae Quinn loves her mother, Rozelle, but knows there's "something wrong" with her—which, as it soon becomes clear, is an extreme understatement. As the novel opens, Rozelle is getting ready to give birth to her 10th child (by a 10th father) and thinking about forcing the obedient Tangy Mae, who longs to stay in school, to take over her housecleaning job. Using a large cast of powerfully drawn characters, Phillips captures life in a town that serves as a microcosm of a world on the brink of change. There's Junior, the perpetual optimist, who wants to teach people to read and write so they can understand the injustices of Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan; Hambone, a here today/gone tomorrow rabble-rouser whose anger against white men and their laws inflames those around him; and Miss Pearl, the only true friend to the Quinn family. At the dark heart of the story is Rozelle, the beautiful mixed-race head of the Quinn family whose erratic mood swings, heart-wrenching cruelty and deep emotional distress leave an indelible mark on all her children. Through all the violence and hardship breathes the remarkable spirit of Tangy Mae, who is wise beyond her years; forced to do unspeakable things by her mother and discriminated against by the town's whites, she manages to survive and to rescue a younger sister from the same fate.
Phillips writes with a no-nonsense elegance.... As a vision of African-American life, The Darkest Child is one of the harshest novels to arrive in many years.... [Phillips] buttresses those harsh episodes with a depth of characterization worthy of Chekhov, pitch-perfect dialogue, and a profound knowledge of the segregated South in the ’50s.
Delores Phillips' assured debut offers a unique vision of a black family in the Deep South. Fans of Beloved or The Color Purple will find resonance in this finely constructed novel, which pulls no punches in its portrayal of racism, a dysfunctional family and a child desperate to survive.
Quality Paperback Direct (QPD) Review
A grim tale, set in the dying days of segregation, about one young woman's struggle to escape her past, her mother, and her duties. Phillips writes vividly and certainly creates memorable characters—most of them, however, remembered for their nastiness, there being an absence of redeeming features. The blacks who live in Pakersfield, Georgia, are almost as nasty as the whites, who are all racist, vicious hypocrites. Both races father illegitimate children, and while the older blacks fear confrontation, the younger want to act immediately. The story, told by Tangy Mae, begins as her mother Rozelle gives birth to her tenth child, Judy. All the children have different fathers, Tangy Mae the darkest, while Rozelle herself is the product of a white man who raped her mother. Rozelle, who takes center stage, is a monster whose treatment of her children reads like a charge sheet. Which is the novel's fundamental weakness: Rozelle is beyond awful, disowned even by her mother, but the author offers no explanation for her cruelty. And as Tangy Mae, a bright student, struggles to stay in school, keep Rozelle happy, and care for her siblings, she records the horrors her mother inflicts on her children. She insists that all the money they earn, including that of her two grown up sons Sam and Harvey, be given to her; she forces daughters Tara and Mushy to work at a local whorehouse, and she beats them, burns them with cigarettes, insists they shoplift, and denies them proper education. While Rozelle becomes even more out of control, a young black activist is hanged, and Sam and his angry cohorts burn down white stores, with inevitable repercussions. The most lethal damage, though, is still to come at the hands of Rozelle. Good intentions, but overwrought.
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:
Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Darkest Child:
1. The place to start a discussion is with the obvious—Rozelle. What is wrong with her? Is she too horrible to be believable?
2. Why does Tangy Mae continue to love her mother after all the cruelty she and her siblings endure at her hand?
3. How would you describe Tangy Mae? What are her dreams...and to what degree does she have to compromise them to appease her mother? Would you describe Tangy Mae as wise beyond her years...or naive?
4. What effect does Tangy Mae's darker skin have on her standing in both black and white worlds? Is that prejudice different or the same today—again, within both white and black circles?
5. Describe the racial tensions and injustices as they existed in Parkersfield at the time of the story. How are the lives of the book's characters misshapen by years of oppression?
6. What are the generational differences regarding the hopes and grievances of Parkersfield's black community? How do the two generations want to confront the injustices?
7. Talk about the roles of Junior, Hambone and Miss Pearl.
8. Were you expecting the outcome of the book's final pages?
(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)
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