When I Was White, by Sarah Valentine****

Sarah Valentine was raised to believe that she was white, and that her dark complexion was the product of her Greek ancestors. But whereas she does have Greek ancestry in her DNA, Sarah is also of African descent. This strange but compelling, searingly honest memoir came to me courtesy of Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press; it will be available to the public tomorrow, August 6, 2019.

Valentine is an excellent writer, and she spins us back in time to her childhood, spent in a private school, a Catholic upper middle class family, celebrating European cultural events. She is the only African-American or mixed race student at her school, and every now and then, someone there will make a remark that infers she is Black. This puzzles her. Her own mother makes remarks bordering on White Supremacy, assumptions about the habits and character of Black people; of course, none of this should apply to Sarah, in her view, because she insists that Sarah is Greek and Irish, and Irish, and Irish.

Reading of her experiences, I am initially surprised that such culturally clueless, entirely white parents would be permitted to adopt a Black child; but here’s the thing. She isn’t adopted. She is her mother’s biological child, and to talk about who her biological father is, is to recognize that her mother was not always faithful to her father. It’s a keg of dynamite, one that her parents carefully navigate around. Not only have they not spoken about this to Sarah; they have not spoken about it to each other. It is a fiction that holds their marriage together; toss a tablecloth over that keg of TNT there and for goodness sake, don’t bump it.

I came away feeling sorry for her father.

There’s a lot more going on between Sarah and her parents, particularly her mother, a talented but not entirely stable parent who assigns impossible standards to her daughter. Meanwhile, as Sarah grows up and leaves for college, the fiction of her heritage is uncovered, first as a mere suspicion, then later as fact.

This isn’t an easy read or a fun one. It can’t be. Sarah’s pain bleeds through the pages as we see the toxic ingredients and outcomes in her story; her mother’s mental health and her own, as well as eating disorders and the implosion of her parents’ marriage. The particulars of her lifelong struggle make it impossible to draw a larger lesson in terms of civil rights issues; there are some salient points that will speak to women that grew up in the mid-20th century as Sarah’s mother did, and as I did. And here we find one small spark of optimism, the fact that when women are raped, whether at college or elsewhere, we stand a greater chance of being believed than we did in the past. Still, it’s a grim tale overall, and I don’t think there’s any other way Sarah could honestly have told it.

Clover Blue, by Eldonna Edwards*****

Edwards is the author of This I Know, and here, once again, she creates a powerful story based on a youthful yearning for identity. My thanks go to the author and her publicist for the printed galley, and to Kensington and Net Galley for the digital copy.  It will be available May 28, 2019.

Our setting is a small commune in California in the early 1970s. Our protagonist, Clover Blue, sleeps in a tree house with some of the other commune members. There’s no running water or electricity, but we don’t miss what we don’t have, and California has a mild climate. Though decisions are made collectively, with younger and older residents each having a vote, Goji is the spiritual leader of the group. In place of formal education, young commune members study with him. Blue can read as well as other children his age, and he knows more about nature than most would because it’s part of his everyday experience. He doesn’t remember living anywhere else; his life is happy, and his bonds with his communal family are strong ones.

But everyone wants to know their origins, and Blue is no different. As puberty approaches, he begins to ask questions. He gains the sense that older members know things they won’t tell him, and it heightens his desire to find out. Goji promises him that he will be told when he turns twelve, but his twelfth birthday comes and goes, and still Goji evades his queries.

And so the story darkens just a bit as Blue undertakes research on his own. He has a hunch as to who his biological parents might be, and despite the communal culture that regards every older person as the mother or father of every younger person, he wants the particulars and is determined to get them. The things he learns are unsettling and produce further questions.

A large part of the problem the communal elders face is that the State of California does not recognize the commune, and the living conditions and educational process used there are not legally viable. Because of these things, Goji discourages interaction with the outside world, and sometimes essential services—such as medical care—are given short shrift because of the risks they pose. Instead, naturopathic remedies are used, often to good result.

Edwards builds resonant characters, and I believe Blue, the sometimes-mysterious Goji, and Harmony, the member of the commune that is closest to Blue. There is enough ambiguity within each of them to prevent them from becoming caricatures; everyone holds various qualities within them, none being wholly benign or malevolent. The way that we judge these characters isn’t built upon their ability to do everything well, but in how they deal with their mistakes when they make them. In addition, some writers of historical fiction—which technically this isn’t, but it has that vibe—fall into the trap of establishing time and place through the cheap shortcut of pop cultural references and well known historical events. Edwards doesn’t do that, but she does use the speech of the time period so effectively that at times, I feel transported back to my own adolescence. There are aspects of the period I’d forgotten entirely that surprise and delight me; if there are errors, I don’t see them.

Ultimately, the story takes a turn that harks back (somewhat) to George Orwell’s classic, Animal Farm, in that while everyone at the commune is said to be equal, some are “more equal than others.” Cracks in the foundation of their once-idyllic lives form, and we see who has strength of character, and who is lacking.

If I could change anything, I would make the ending less rushed, and I’d also urge the author to be less afraid of letting the ugly parts play themselves out as they most likely would in real life. In this novel and her last, it seems like the tragic aspects that occur near or at the climax are a hot stove, and we have to move away from them quickly. I’d like to see Edwards let the stove burn a little more.

 I do recommend this book to you. In fact, it may be a five star read, but it’s almost impossible to evaluate it without comparing it to what the author wrote earlier, and this made the five star standard difficult to achieve here. Those that love historical fiction should get it and read it.