This is a Review: Growin' Up White, by Dwight RitterFebruary 01, 2015
Remember how I said I read two books during my MLK weekend read-a-thon that made me think? This is the second one. It might have made more sense to post about this one for MLK Day, since it directly involves the civil rights movement, but I slacked
Requisite disclaimer: I received Growin' Up White from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. (Baby's first review book—I've made it big!) Many thanks to Iron Press for offering me the chance to read it.
Growin' Up White is the story of the Stoner family, told from the perspective of middle child Rick Stoner. Set during the start and peak of the American civil rights movement in Indianapolis, the story revolves around Rick's coming-of-age—making friends, experiencing first love, and looking racism in the face—in a mostly black neighborhood. Much of his (and his family's) growth is ushered along by their highly religious, African-American nanny named Georgey. At least some of the story is autobiographical—there are references to real events, like the marches from Selma and the Emmett Till murder, and, more personally, Ritter's mother was a concert pianist like Rick Stoner's—but Ritter himself has said this is a work of fiction.
I tried going through my highlights and notations in my Kindle copy to prepare to write this review, but I gave up after a while because, honestly, they're too numerous to mention. (For Kindle users: I have seventeen and a half pages of highlights. Eep.)
Having finished this book just about two weeks ago, what still stands out to me most are the characters. Ritter's ability to write Rick Stoner from childhood to late high school stuck with me—the protagonist never sounded too old or wise for his age, the downfall of many authors attempting to write child characters, and his voice changed accordingly as he grew (I think particularly of his unbearable moodiness toward Georgey and his family during his teens). Oh, and Georgey—her impromptu prayers had this agnostic's heart aching.
Rick's mother, Lillian Stoner, was also especially well-written. Although her husband is particularly involved with the black community as a friend and physician, Lillian is more removed and even seems to resent her son making black friends. At one point, Georgey asks Lillian if she might not mind playing piano for her friend, Miss Tildalayhu (or Miss Tilly), who loves to sing "Negro gospel music" with the church choir. The Stoner family seems excited by the prospect, but Lillian resists:
Gospel music was an assault on Mom's creativity ... an assault on her childhood, her training. Music sung by the uneducated. That we were even interested in it—or might prefer it—was an assault on her life's work.
"I am not colored," she suddenly blurted. "You can't make me colored."
"Classical pianists," Mom paused, thinking," ... are the whitest white people on the planet."
Eventually, Lillian tries playing some gospel songs, and it opens up a whole new world for her, both musically and personally through her friendship with Miss Tilly. Though this may come off as a bit oversimplified and cheesy, it's a perfect example of how people are afraid of things (and other people) that they don't understand. Watching Lillian confront and overcome her own personal prejudices was one of the more poignant story arcs for me.
Still, the book doesn't shy away from presenting the realities of racial prejudice, including how it cannot always be conquered. We watch Rick get his jaw wired shut after trying to join a mostly black basketball game, and he struggles to reconcile hanging out with the coolest kids in school, despite the fact that their families are Klan members. The fact that not one of the characters is completely without prejudice strengthened the story—we frequently watch Rick grapple with whether his white friends could be right after all, and we even see Georgey admit that interracial relationships just can't work, despite the general clamor for integration. Ritter manages to navigate the characters' personal biases and the overall political climate realistically, without making the story feel (pardon the phrasing) too black-and-white.
I really enjoyed this book, though it felt somewhat long in parts—I was reading an advance review copy, so I'm not sure how the length changed with its official release. I would highly recommend Growin' Up White to anyone who enjoys a sprawling family drama and is willing to confront the (still very persistent) blight of racism on America's history.