“No Mother Could Do That, Not Even Mine. Could She?”

The Darkest Child started out as a rhyming poem that evolved into my first work of fiction. The premise never changed, only the rhymes. As mentioned before, I wanted to explore. The characters took over, and by the time I finished I had 835 pages. Thanks to the staff at Soho Press for editing it down to a reasonable length. The story takes place in Georgia and begins in 1958 with a mentally disturbed mother of nine who is about to give birth to her tenth child.

Delores Phillips Bio: Delores Phillips was born in Bartow County, Georgia in 1950, the second of four children. She graduated from Cleveland State University with a Bachelor of Arts in English and works as a nurse at a state psychiatric hospital. Her work has appeared in Jean’s Journal, Black Times, and The Crisis. She has lived in Cleveland, Ohio since 1964.

Book: The Darkest Child
Publisher: Soho Press
Original Publication Year: 2005
Pages: 387

Opening Lines: PAKERSFIELD, GEORGIA 1958 – Mama washed the last dish she ever intended to wash. I alone witnessed the event, in silence. It was on a Friday-a school day-but instead of sitting in a classroom, I was standing in unfamiliar surroundings, the home of my mother’s employers, stunned by the wealth around me. As I regarded my mother through unwavering peripheral vision, something in her glances at me seemed to say, “Tangy Mae, this will be your life. Grab an apron and enjoy it.”

Reason for selection: Since I turned off my cable television some weeks ago, I thought I’d celebrate with a book purchase in order to get my reading game back on track. The Darkest Child is, as I mentioned in a previous post, an overdue read. And a few of my friends mentioned that they really enjoyed it, so that helped.

Cover Art: I stared at the girl on the yellow cover on several occasions. While she wasn’t what I imagined the main character, Tangy Mae, to look like, there is still something visually appealing about what one might be able to read into based on the girl’s facial expression on the cover alone. It’s like the cover tries to summarize the story before a written summary is even needed. Ideas for a better cover? Would it have been to easy to feature a few other children on the cover with the dark-skinned child a standout feature somewhere in the center? Maybe so.

Themes: family, possession, physical and sexual abuse, mental stability, colorism, survival, segregation, desire/struggle for acceptance, coming of age, lust for power/control, abortion, motherhood, the boundaries of friendship, God and spirituality, hoodoo, race relations/racism, etc.

Books with Similar Themes:

The Positives: From the beginning, there are signs that something isn’t quite right with Rozelle, the heartless mother at the center of this novel. Tangy Mae, Rozelle’s seventh child and the novel’s narrator, provides the landscape for the oftentimes unexpected abuse that Rozelle distributes amongst her children–belt buckle beat downs, hot coffee and fists to the face, and derogatory nicknames. And that’s the mild abuse. Add a few forced sexual romps at the local “farmhouse” (read: whorehouse) with the local men for various favors and unspoken monetary amounts and you’re left with a mother who readers may hope won’t live to see novels final pages. Just when you think, how foul can one mother get, Rozelle gives you something more. No wonder it’s such a page turner! Readers will predict and expect many things that happen in the book, but unlike a bad movie, we’re often saddened and question why when we get it. By far, this book isn’t depressing. Readers will get what they expect from a 1950s/60s rural southern town–racism, segregation/integration, angry blacks/whites, and characters seeking a way to change or escape it all. What makes this book so compelling is that home is often supposed to be a place for escape from the harsh realities of the outside world. In Philips novel, home is no safer than the streets–there is never a balance.

The Negatives: My only issue with the book is that sometimes the number of characters overwhelmed me. This is a novel that would definitely benefit from a family tree image at the front or back of the book. Rozelle had ten children. Off the top of my head these kids included: Tangy Mae, Norma Jean, Mushy, Tarabelle, Sam, Harvey (was it Harvey?), Edna, Laura…and then I draw blanks. Now, imagine keeping up with the names of ten children, the neighbor and her husband, Tangy Mae’s school friends, black characters from town, and evil white people. Add to that a range of characters significant enough for a name mention, but not necessarily worthy of lines of dialogue or an actual appearance. But somehow, that little issue doesn’t matter. You figure it out and keep the pages moving.

There are also a couple of things that I’m okay with that others may not necesarily be feeling. By the time I made it to the novel’s final pages, I still felt like there was more to say and more that could be done with the characters. The conclusion is fine, but of course it will make readers ask questions about a sequel. After reading that Phillips had to cut the novel down from 800+ pages, it’s a little easier to understand why the novel ended in the manner that it did. On another related note, it’s also established that the mother probably has either a real or pretended mental illness (cause you never really know the extent of Rozelle’s evil), but the issue is never really fully explored in a medical setting. While I don’t think that’s necessary, some readers may want more answers or justification.

Notable Excerpt: Our mother, in a faded pink housedress, sat in an armchair, her feet bare and her legs crossed, a startling contrast from the day before. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and her lipstick was smeared across her left cheek. She held the wind-up clock that usually stood on a shelf in her room. She would it and placed it on the round table beside the kerosene lamp, then she told us to be quiet and to sit down.

“Satan’s in here,” she said in a hollow voice, her gaze darting about the room. “While I was gone, one of y’all let Satan in my house. Who was it?”

No one spoke.

“Don’t sit there like idiots. I wanna know who did it. Ask the dummy if she let him in here.”

Harvey, who was sitting closest to Martha Jean, moved his fingers before her face, and she shook her head in fear and denial.

Mama rose from the chair, walked over to the wall of coats, and took down the one Velman Cooper had bought for Martha Jean. She flung it through the air and it landed on the floor in front of the armchair where Martha Jean sat holding Judy. Martha Jean curled over, shielding the baby with her upper torso.

“Satan’s in here,” Mama repeated with mounting fear in her voice.

Edna started to cry, and Mama spun around to face her. “Shut up. You want him to hear you?” she whispered, easing back to her armchair, glancing over one shoulder, and then the other.

She sat on the edge of the chair, poised to move quickly, and we followed her gaze to the leaking ceiling, to the corners of the room, and to the doorway that led into the hall.

“Mama, you awright?” Harvey asked.

“Shut up,” she whispered, tilting an ear toward the hall. “Y’all done let Satan in here. I can’t trust none of y’all.” Her back stiffened, and she stared around the room at each of us. “What the Bible say, Harvey?”

“Honor they mother.” Automatically, Harvey gave the correct response. It had been instilled in him.

“What it say, Edna Pearl?” Mama asked.

“Honor they mother,” Edna whimpered.

“That’s right, and y’all don’t honor me. Y’all done brought Satan in my house just as sho’ as I’m sitting here, and we gotta get rid of ‘im.” Her voice became conspiratorial. “We gon’ sit here real quiet so he’ll think there ain’t no bodies to get into.”

And the silence began.

Film Adaptation: So, who would they cast for the film adaptation of The Darkest Child?  Let’s consider five of the important female characters from the book:

Mama/Rozelle – Nicole Ari Parker, Mushy -Alicia Keys, Tarabelle – Stacy Dash (might be a little old for this role), Pearl – Techinia Arnold, and Tangy Mae – Keke Palmer. But I don’t know if this cast would mesh on screen together or if these actresses could carry of their assigned roles–Techinia Arnold excluded.

Other Publications by Phillips: Sadly, non-applicable.

Overall Rating: A definite 5 out of 5. I enjoyed the writing, the plot line, and well-developed characters. There’s not a single thing that this book misses. I had no issue turning off the television or pulling this book out during long waits. I always wanted to know what would happen next. Most importantly, the characters and town stays on your mind even after the books close.

Happy reading, y’all!