Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

“Sandrine’s Letter to Tomorrow,” by Dedra Johnson

Ig Publishing (a small press), 2008

I am now in the midst of my favorite part of the research process, as I compile my grand list of contemporary historical fiction. The favorite part is reading, discovering all kinds of original voices I probably wouldn’t have heard, if not for this great task before me.

Anyway, Dedra Johnson’s is such a voice.  

“Sandrine’s Letter to Tomorrow,” is a literary story featuring a nine-year-old black girl, who is trying to carve a right for love, a childhood and a future in cruel 1970s New Orleans. Though this is a coming-of-age story, it’s definitely NOT for children (a distinction I am learning to make!)

I loved Sandrine. In some ways, she is a too-young black Cinderella with a mother AND  a stepmother (and it’s hard to decide which of the two is worse!!) I understood why the girl sounded so darn mature. She had to be!

I liked her complicated relationship with her stepsister. I loved the fighter in her.

Still, despite my love for Sandrine 🙂 I am torn as to whether this book should be on my list. As I read with my writer’s eye, a few things troubled me. Like the character of Sandrine’s mother, and some other woman figures (such as her stepmother). They were evil. Fairytale evil. I guess I just did not believe that. (I never want to believe that about anyone.)

Also, the men in the story bothered me. Even the supposed “good guy,” Sandrine’s father, was weak, and I thought his neglect in the first part of the book was unforgivable, though he tried to make up for it later. First, his woman is blamed for his behavior, then it’s his work. Maybe Dedra meant to raise this question?

The bad guys of the story (and there were many!) would make anyone shudder. I wondered at that. I understand a writer’s obsession with the wicked side of the human heart. Nathaniel Hawthorne had it in the 19th century. Stephen King has it today. I definitely have it also 🙂 I have a friend, too, who is a brilliant writer and a poet – and is a generous warm-hearted person, who showed me a chapter which just teemed with horrors that made my skin crawl. I wondered if for Dedra it was like that. Or if the 1970s New Orleans really was a place of such despicable secret crimes . . .

So, thinking those thoughts as I read, I was ready to declare this book isn’t for my list . . . but then I looked at the clock by my bed.

I try to go to bed by 9:30 p.m., 10 at the latest now, as I am trying to keep up with my early morning writing schedule. But if this book is so flawed, then how come I could not put the darn thing down when I read it last night?? And in the morning, on my way to Lit. class, how come I could not stop thinking about Sandrine’s struggle? 

I think there is something very real about this book, but also something very raw, too raw, maybe. But maybe that’s okay. I totally get some of the critics’/other authors’ comparisons to Toni Morrison. I did not particularly care for her first 1970 novel, “The Bluest Eye.” But then, “Beloved” (pub. in 1987) knocked the breath out of me. I kind of feel the same way about Dedra Johnson. I have this premonition about her, this sense that she is a voice, that she is important. That we have not heard the last of her. I will be definitely watching her career. Can’t wait to see what she comes up with next (no pressure, Dedra!) 🙂

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March 12, 2010 - Posted by | Book Impressions | ,

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