I took an unexpected pleasure ride today with SMELLING HERSELF by Terris McMahan Grimes. I’ve been meaning to read this book since October when it was released but then promised myself that it would be the first thing I’d do once I finished NaNoWriMo.
I’m a long fan of Ms. Grimes’ work. I’m looking at my dog-eared copy of her debut novel SOMEBODY ELSE’S CHILD as I type this blog post, which won an Anthony Award for best first novel and the Chester Himes Black Mystery Writer’s Award.
She’d posted an excerpt from SMELLING HERSELF on her Facebook page several months ago, which I thoroughly enjoyed, so I was looking forward to reading the entire manuscript. I downloaded the book, opened my Kindle, prepared only to re-read the excerpt (I do have a word count goal to accomplish today after all).
Anyway, that was at 12:30 this afternoon.
It was 4:04pm when I turned off the Kindle.
I really don’t have the words to do this story justice but I’m going to try:
The Amazon book description presents the book as a coming of age story. It’s told through the eyes of 11-year old Bernadine, who had made it her life’s work to grow some “titties” before the end of the summer. The phrase smelling yourself is a way of saying that a child (usually, or a teen) is trying too hard to be grown or they feel like they know it all and no one can tell them anything.
That pretty much sums up Bernadine . . . on the surface at least. But the truth is that in 1964 Oakland California, she is forced to face some truths most parents I know, would prefer that their children NOT KNOW at the tender age of eleven.
“We kids were weighed down with things we were afraid to ask about, questions we didn’t ask, fears we never put into words. They killed a white man who was president. Our daddies weren’t white, and they would never be president, and we knew they were no safer than the man who had been both. No matter how large our daddies loomed in the doorway when they came home from work, we knew. We didn’t dare say any of this out loud because if our daddies weren’t safe then they couldn’t keep us safe, and we were embarrassed for them and terrified for ourselves.” –Bernadine, Smelling Herself
How do you teach a child that in this land of milk and honey, fairy tale princes and princesses do not exist?
This is a coming of age story, not only for Bernadine but for her African American community as well. She talks about her urgent need to grow up, and then she’ll finally have . . . something. Her community, our community struggles with the same urgency, to push past the remnants of slavery and Jim Crow, materialism, self-hatred, at times sacrificing the baby with the bathwater, as my granny used to say, all in search of . . . something.
But Bernie’s mom summed it up best:
“Stop trying to be so womanish. Being grown isn’t that easy.”
“You think being a kid is?”
The characters are complex and well-drawn. In addition to Bernie, two of the secondary characters I resonated to were Ol’ Bad Richard and Juanita, Big Josh’s woman. I’ve known both of these characters in my real life. I said at the top of this post that I didn’t have the words, and that’s true. I turned off my Kindle and walked through my house in an emotional thunderstorm! There was so much that I won’t tell because I don’t want to spoil your experience of this but I have a feeling that Bernadine will continue to speak to me in the weeks to come.