Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Summer We Got Free by Mia McKenzie

A stranger comes to town and then all kinds of secrets come bubbling to the surface in Mia McKenzie's Lambda award-winning The Summer We Got Free.

The Delaney family has lived in the same house on Radnor Street in west Philadelphia for decades. In 1950, George and Regina Delaney, 6-year-old Sarah, and 4-year-old twins, Ava and Geo, were immediately welcomed into the church on their block from the first day in the neighbourhood. Something major happened after that. By 1976 the Delaneys are shunned by everyone and the grown daughters still live at home. The story shifts back and forth between the 50s and the mid-70s.

Helena, the long-lost sister of Ava's husband Paul, arrives at the Delaney house unexpectedly.

"When Helena crossed the threshold into the house, Ava felt the temperature rise. The chill that had held in the corners since the previous night's rain, that had penetrated the wood floors and clung to the gray-red wallpaper like an invisible frost, melted away in a moment. Ava felt it instantly, a sudden warming on her skin, as if she had just left the shade and was out into the sun on a hot day."

When Ava was a girl, there was something about her that enchanted other people. She was a gifted artist from a young age, and she was wild and fearless. Her unfetteredness was peculiar and yet appealing:

"Up close, the good feelings Ava inspired had been doubled, tripled in some cases. Grace Kellogg found that the little girl's laugh somehow reminded her of the pajamas she had worn as a child -- thick, feet-in pajamas that had kept her warm in the drafty house her family had lived in for many years. Looking into Ava's eyes, Jane Lucas remembered the smile of her love, her young husband, who had died in the war. When Ava tripped and fell over the edge of the rug while running by at full speed, Chuck Ellis lifted her up and in that moment he was sure he smelled morning, though it was six in the evening at the time."

In 1976, Ava is a hollow husk. A line from one of Mary Oliver's poems made me think of Ava:

"sometimes a person just has to break out and act like the wild and springy thing one used to be. It's impossible not to remember wild and want it back." (From Green, Green Is My Sister's Home in A Thousand Mornings.)

Once Ava starts remembering, it can't be stopped. Everyone in her family seems to shake off the spell they've been under. It's a wonderful thing to witness. Ghosts, secret gay and lesbian lives, and unsolved murders are all part of this intriguing story about stepping into our true selves. I loved it.

The smart and scrappy Mia McKenzie has created an activist blog Black Girl Dangerous. Check it out.

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