One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia tells the story of Delphine Gaither and her sisters, Vonetta and Fern. In the summer of 1968, they fly from New York City to Oakland to meet their mother, Cecile. Cecile left the family when Fern was a baby, and the sisters have next to no memories of their mother. She resents the intrusion into her life, and sends them to a summer camp run by the Black Panthers.
I was interested in this book, because for a long time, the only thing I knew about the Black Panthers came from a two-minute scene in Forrest Gump. Most media depicts the Black Panthers in a one-sided way, as a ruthless, militant group. It wasn’t until last year that I even learned about the survival programs the Black Panthers ran. These included the Free Breakfast for Children, community medical clinics, voter registration, and sickle-cell anemia testing. There’s no denying that the Black Panthers were a militant group, and they remain controversial today. But that’s not all they were.
Doing some research on the author herself, I learned that Williams-Garcia’s relatives were members of the Black Panther party. She grew up during the Civil Rights era, and refers to her diaries as her primary sources.
I don’t necessarily dislike historical fiction, but I am very picky about it. I’ve given up reading far more historical novels than I actually finish. So when I say that I couldn’t put this book down, you know that I was hooked. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that characters tend to be what draws me into a story.
All the Gathier women are vibrant and memorable in their own ways. Eleven-year-old Delphine is the eldest, but often must act older than her years. She takes it upon herself to be her younger sisters’ guardian, helping to raise them after Cecile abandoned her family. The middle child, Vonetta, is showy and loves to be at the center of attention. Fern, the youngest, is clear-eyed and an emerging poet.
Cecile is hardly a warm matriarch, and doesn’t want the girls in her life. She’s associated with the Black Panthers and allows them to use her beloved printing press, but she doesn’t share their zeal. Her main concern is her poetry, and she doesn’t act anything like the mother the Gaither sisters imagined for most of the novel.
Another crucial piece of historical fiction is the setting. The time period and location are critical parts of the narrative. In a good historical fiction, the setting is woven together with the story to the point where you can’t separate them.
One Crazy Summer couldn’t be set anywhere but Oakland, CA in the summer of 1968. Along with the other social upheaval and counterculture movements at the time, the murder of Bobby Hutton had occurred only months prior to the beginning of the novel.
When the story begins, Delphine only knows a little about the Black Panthers, and her grandmother, “Big Ma”, only refers to its founders as troublemakers. When they first go to the center for breakfast and the day camp program, they are largely indifferent to the Panthers’ cause. As Vonetta says:
We didn’t come for revolution, we came for breakfast.
As the story progresses, Delphine starts reading the Black Panther’s newspaper, and becomes sympathetic to their cause. She takes pride in her work passing out fliers to encourage people to come to a rally, refusing to shop again at the grocery store that would not allow her to post one. By the end of the novel, she knows taht being associated with the Black Panthers is dangerous, but also understand the value of the party. She comes to better understand the racism and prejudice she and her loved ones face every day, and wants to fight back against it.
There’s a lot more I could talk about this book. I especially loved the importance that was placed on names and identity. However, I don’t want to spoil the events and significant moments in the book for you. I want you to go and read it. You won’t regret it.
One Crazy Summer was a fantastic book from start to finish, and I’ve added its two sequels onto my ever-growing to be read list. The characters and setting are vibrant and authentic, and the novel portrays another side of the Black Panthers that is rarely seen in media.