One Crazy Summer is an understated middle grade novel about Delphine and her two sisters, who travel from Brooklyn to Oakland during the summer of 1968 to spend a month with the mother who left them when they were small. While there, they spend their days at a summer program put on by the Black Panthers, and end up learning a lot about their mother, each other, the world, and themselves.
This book hooked me from the beginning. Eleven-year-old Delphine is a fantastic narrator (and the audiobook is just superb). She’s smart, responsible, resourceful, and wise. She’s used to taking care of herself and her sisters and she does so fiercely. But even though she carries so much weight so gracefully, all her vulnerability comes through, too. She felt totally authentic, both in how strong she was and how exhausted she was sometimes. The relationships between all three sisters were really well done and felt both believable and specific.
But about a third of the way through, the book started dragging. It almost felt like the whole book was buildup–all setup and no plot. Very little actually happened and then it all came together in a climax that felt unsatisfying.
Their mother is pretty awful. Throughout the book, she ignores her children, and basically treats them like squatters in her house, like people she doesn’t want anything to do with. I didn’t have a problem with this (I mean, obviously I did, but it felt true, also). I didn’t like the mother, but she felt authentic. The problem was that, at the end, when Delphine finally talks to her mother about her behavior, it felt really rushed. There was a reconciliation–sort of–but it didn’t have a lot of substance. I really wish the book had gone more strongly in either direction–either a more heartfelt coming together between the sisters and their mother, or a more profound heartbreak between them. As it was written, it felt sort of…empty. The ending seemed underdeveloped and unearned.
I loved all the details, the atmosphere, the descriptions of Oakland and San Francisco, and especially the way the book depicted the Black Panthers from a child’s perspective. It was a really fresh way to look at history, and I can see this book being a fantastic way for young readers to discuss not only the history of the Black Panthers, but of revolutionary movements in general. I haven’t seen that many books about children’s roles in various movements, and I loved that this book centered how Delphine and her sisters experienced the Black Panthers and what was going on around them in Oakland.
The audiobook was stellar. The narrator embodied Delphine perfectly, and it added a lot to the story, for me, and kept me engaged, even when I felt the book dragging. Overall, there’s a lot to love here, but the best parts were atmospheric–the setting, the time and place, the social commentary, the characters–and not the plot, which was a bit flimsy.