Jan/Feb 2006  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Middle Sister

Review by Mark Budman

The Middle Sister.
Bonnie J. Glover.
Ballantine Books. 2005.
ISBN 0345480902.

Everyone has a hero in life: Jesus Christ, Buddha, Napoleon, Che Guevara, The Beatles, Superman. A young black girl named Pamela, the middle sister in Bonnie J. Glover's début novel of the same title, has her hero, too. It's not Martin Luther King, Jr., or P. Diddy, not even Superman or Wonder Woman, but Kwai Chang Caine, a TV Kung Fu character. But don't let his appearance in the text fool you. He is more of a ghost conjured up by Pamela's imagination than a man of flesh and blood.

As hinted at by the epigraph, a brilliant quote from Theodore Hesburgh, "The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother," The Middle Sister is a story of a family where the father failed to love the mother. It is, in fact, the story of a failed family. Pamela and her two sisters need all the help they can get, be it from a superhero or an ordinary human.

Pamela's mother kicks out their father, a man who longs for peace, quiet, and order to such an extent that he nails down all the rugs in the house. "She ain't raising... children to be afraid to move," says their mother. The remaining family slides into a nightmare, and the children indeed move a lot from that point on, mostly down the ladder of life. They lose their house and move into the projects where "the babies screamed, the hallways smelled of sweetened puke and every building looked alike." Their mother, who "used to smell like Avon," now "smell like the... patch of dirt." And Pamela's sister Nona tells her that she is a "dyke." And jail, an unfortunate reality of the projects, looms large over everything. Unlike the TV jail, the real one smells.

But Pamela's hero, who looks like David Carradine when he was younger (the action takes place in the seventies, way before "Kill Bill"), comes to the rescue. Though he might be not quite real, and though his help does not extend beyond advice, he's still a genuine hero whom every girl needs, though "his feet were bare, long bony toes without a proper home." But who said that a hero has to wear a power cape or tie as long as he helps a little girl?

Well, not so little, maybe. Pamela is a girl with budding sexuality who "dreams about young boys trying to hold me with fumbling hands." She dreams about her daddy as well, but her reality becomes so twisted that her lovers and he share the same body in her dreams. They are one and the same because she wants them all. Now, more than ever, she needs to be as strong as a tree, as her hero suggests, a tough fit in the projects.

The language of the novel is certainly not highbrow and perhaps flows too casually to sustain the action sometimes, but unexpected pearls abound, enough even for a discriminate reader. The plot has no room to grow wings in a thin, actually very thin, paperback, but the novel is fun and takes you places where you haven't been before but always were curious about. Sometimes, it's not the trip that matters, but the destination. And this destination is worth the trip.


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