Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Small Moments - Mary M. Barrow

Summary:  Jim Crow. Segregation. Separate but equal. At the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, these words mean little to Mary, an eleven-year-old Southern transplant in New Jersey. Forced to grow up in an place so unlike her old home, Mary clings onto one thing she knows and loves: Amelia, her family's African American housemaid.

At once a stern caretaker and a tender mother-figure, Amelia's constant presence in Mary's life gradually exposes Mary to the rippling tide of unrest and inequality spreading through the nation, as well as the violent and heartbreaking ramifications of the Tuskegee experiment.

Based on a true story, "Small Moments" is a gripping and heartfelt tale of how one uneducated and underprivileged woman taught a young girl to see the world not in terms of color, but in terms of kindness, equality, and love.  (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Mary and her brother Chuck have been sent on a train with their nanny, a woman they call Mimi, to travel to a new home in New Jersey, away from the South, away from the poisoning influence of their father's family, and away from everything they know.  Everything is foreign, everything is changing, and the only continuity they feel is through their contact with Amelia. 

Small Moments is an memoir of sorts, as Mary navigates her childhood, looking back at a child's perspective of the Dawn of the Civil Rights movement, but being heavily influenced in her views by her love for Amelia, an African-American nanny who has left everything behind to work for Mary's family.  Her father, a man full of anger and so willing to lash out, is  vitriolic on his views of virtually everything, but Mary's own outlook is tempered by conversations and experiences she lives through with Amelia.

This is the first memoir I've ever read where the author isn't the main character.  Not only was it refreshing, but it blessed the narrative with a gravity to the experiences, the triumphs, the defeats, and the emotions that Barrow is trying to impart.  It brought to life the struggle that children raised in the 50s and 60s experience.  As a memoir of a child, the book leaps forward as a memory would, showing only scenes that stick out in Barrow's memory, and through the eyes and understanding of a child.  I was surprised that this style didn't frustrate  me.  Somehow, I found it purified Barrow's voice.

I write this review on the heels of numerous race riots in the past few months.  My heart is saddened to read of the longstanding police brutality and inaction in certain cities.  Picking up this book (I assure you, perfectly by accident) during this time deepened the meaning of Barrow's love of her Mimi, cast a deeper shadow on the inequality still present.  Small Moments is a book of hope.  It's a book of a child learning to view the world not as told, but as experienced.  It's a banner of hope that through our actions, we can rise, learn, improve.  Juxtapositioned with the news these past few days, it has served as a reminder to me  to be more vigilant with my own family.  To teach them to truly SEE a person, not just look.  To remind them that what we do is more important than what we say.

I felt this book deeply.  I can't imagine loving someone as deeply as Mary clearly loves Mimi and knowing, as Mary does, that her feelings are in some way unrequited.  This book serves as a tribute to Amelia, and it holds up beautifully.

Rating: Four and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  The N word is used a few times, and used as an offense.  There are also a few diatribes of Barrow's father, who was as prejudiced as many men were at that time.  

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