Mama's Child by Joan Steinau Lester is the thought provoking story of Lizzie and her daughter Ruby. Lizzie and Ruby don't have the idealistic relationship that mother's and daughters usually have. Their relationship is strained by the obvious differences in their race. After divorcing Ruby's father, Lizzie decides that it would be best if Ruby remain with her while her son Che goes with his father. Ruby is incapable of forgiving her mother because she feels this seperates her from the only link she has to her black side. Upon becoming a mother later in Mama's Child, Ruby is overwhelmed with the guilt of banishing her mother from her life.
Mama's Child alterates between the voice of Ruby and Lizzie. It is in these chapters Lester brings their characters to life and the reader is encouraged to take into account both ends of the spectrum. Lizzie is the radical activist who fights for civil rights, women's liberation, and human freedom. Ruby is the intelligent child who often feels neglected or a ticket into the "black" world by a mother who has no clue. Both women are strong, determined women that I find many will identify with. They have their strengths but boy do they have their weaknesses.
Joan Lester paints a vivid picture of the times during the 70s and 80s that much of this novel takes place in. She mentions the Black Panther movement, women's equality, and also gay/lesbian struggles. Lester takes these broad ideas and makes them relevant to the characters which allows for greater discussion or meaning. The biggest issue in the novel is the race divide that can be powerful enough to separate families. This is a heart-wrenching idea for me. I have a few mixed race family members and I don't see them as anything except family.
It is a compliment that Lester is able to write characters that I absolutely hated yet still make me care about them. This is where I feel the most angst with this book. Lizzie seems to be unable to find herself. She's so devoted to so many different causes since the 60s, I don't think she's ever had time to sit back and wonder what's most important to her. This may absolve her in some reader's eyes, but I felt this was selfish. Lizzie not only hurt her own growth and development, but also the relationship she could have had with her daughter.
Ruby is not off the hook either. I can get past all the teenager issues that seem so popular... the dressing cool, the blatant disrespect, and the selfishness. It seems those issues are common amongst the demographic. Ruby's problem is that she is a brat. She never once is able to see the world through the eyes of her mother who has a family that share struggles she will never be able to relate to. It is also enfuriating that Ruby totally dismisses her Irish side as if it isn't a part of her the way being black is a part of her. Ruby makes their difference in race the catalyst for her raging anger. She is the least likeable character I have read in a long time. Ruby got less than she deserved most of this novel.
Beneath the layers of white guilt and black victimization, Mama's Child is really about the relationship between mother and child; Who we view as our family. A relationship that should be so intangible, is fragile between these two multifaceted (and selfish) characters. Joan Steinau Lester's able to write two deeply flawed characters that are worth caring about. I foresee this novel striking a lot of dialogue about not only race relations, but the relationship a mother and daughter have when race is the only thing that really separates them. I will read more by this author and I recommend this novel to all book clubs. This novel will encourage ideas and debates for a long time. ***