Title: Things Too Huge to Fix by Saying Sorry
Author: Susan Vaught
Publisher: A Paula Wiseman Book (S&S), 2016
Themes: Racism, civil rights movement, Oxford (Mississippi), 20th century, families, Alzheimers,
Edgar Award Nominee for Best Juvenile, 2017
It made me wonder if ghosts and ghost stories were like stains on a shirt that just won’t come out. Or maybe some things, like wars and hate and discrimination and violence, those things that Indri said were too huge and awful to fix by just saying, “I’m sorry,” stain time so nothing can ever be the same again.
“Sooner or later, we’re all gonna be okay.”
That’s what Dani’s Grandma Beans used to say. But that was before she got Alzheimer’s. Lately, Dani isn’t so sure Grandma Beans was right. In fact, she isn’t sure of a lot of things, like why Mac Richardson suddenly doesn’t want to be her friend, and why Grandma Beans and Avadelle Richardson haven’t spoken in decades. Lately, Grandma Beans doesn’t make a lot of sense. But when she tells Dani to find a secret key and envelope that she’s hidden, Dani can’t ignore her. So she investigates, with the help of her friend, Indri, and her not-friend, Mac. Their investigation takes them deep into the history of Oxford, Mississippi, and the riots surrounding the desegregation of Ole Miss. The deeper they dig, the more secrets they uncover. Were Grandma Beans and Avadelle at Ole Miss the night of the Meredith Riot? And why would they keep it a secret?
The more Dani learns about her grandma’s past, the more she learns about herself and her own friendships—and it’s not all good news. (Goodreads)
Why I like this book:
This is an ambitious, and audacious middle grade book tackling issues of race in a way I haven’t seen before. The pacing is excellent making it a can’t-put-downer for me. I left work on my own manuscript aside to finish this one. In part because the story was so gripping but also I wanted to make sure I finished it in time to put it in prime of place in my Black History Month Display.
Much of the appeal and skill of this novel is the three points of view. The main narrator is Beans, the young girl through whose eyes we see the present story unfolding, and who is tasked with solving the mystery that her semi-lucid grandmother has given her from her own past. The second POV is the grandmother’s own diary entries, which are trickled through the narrative. The third POV is masterful as we see the past told through excerpts of a novel published many years before after the Oxford riots by the grandmother’s oldest frenemy and which is at the heart of their family fallout (The Magnolia Feud).
The balance of racial identities enriched this complex story. Grandma Beans is black, Dani’s mom is white, and Avadelle Richardson (the frenemy) is white, as is one of the characters in her book (a white college girl who comes to help out in the 1960s, and stays with a black family. Dani’s bets friends are Indri (white) and Mac, Avadelle’s grandson. Making Dani biracial adds to the dynamic of very real civil tensions and responsibilities both past and present. The story actually kicks off at the end of the summer semester of 7th grade and Mac telling Dani he’s not allowed to hang with her anymore.
The weaving of past and present, the old documentation, and the present day conflicts provide the reader with both a gripping modern day middle grade mystery and age appropriate insights into the progress of integration in the 60’s at Ole Miss. The effects on the Oxford community are clearly not dead and buried. I so appreciated the modern day perspective reflecting so much progress and yet, age-old unresolved racial tensions. How timely!
The excerpts from the adult novel require a certain level of maturity in the reader, but one that will be well rewarded.
I do also want to mention the warmth and sorrow evoked through Bean’s care for her grandma. This book is multilayered, and the addition of a relative suffering from dementia not only furthers the plot but adds another emotional layer, which does not feel superfluous.
The chapter titles are also noteworthy as are the key and flower symbols at the top of the pages.
The only question I had was an unexpected twist at the end, which didn’t feel necessarily forwarded the story. However, I would highly recommend the book for all middle schools and young readers who enjoy mystery and/or historical fiction.
Susan Vaught’s story creates an accessible vehicle for young readers to become immersed in a lesser known moment in integration history. I highly recommend this as a class read in 5th, 6th, 7th or 8th grade.
While she spent her early childhood in Mississippi and this is evident in her writing, at the back of the book Susan Vaught shares her concerns in writing “other”. As a writer of diverse characters myself, I feel she presents a great example of impeccable research and successful sensitivity reading.