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Those of you who read Pearl Cleage's What Looks Like Crazy On An Ordinary Day (an Oprah book club selection) will remember the protagonist's sister, Joyce Mitchell, who ran a social club of sorts for teenaged moms. Cleage's new novel, I Wish I Had a Red Dress, continues the story of Joyce and her girls and the men who shake up their worlds - for good and for ill.
A resident of a rural African-American town called Idlewild, Joyce has eaten much bitterness. She's not only a widow, but her children have also died, and when the book opens she's in the process of being humiliated by a legislative committee for daring to seek state money for her girls. She's teaching them, with varying degrees of success, to be free and strong women, which largely means crawling out from under the thumbs of their abusive or irresponsible boyfriends. Since the boyfriends tend to ratchet up their abuse during the Superbowl, Joyce stages an anti-Superbowl party which evolves into the "The Sewing Circus Film Festival for Free Women," featuring films by black directors with strong black women as lead characters. Of course the town's young men resent the idea of their girlfriends focusing on something other than them, and an event occurs during the festival that underscores the book's theme of men inevitably barging in to mess up women's happiness.
Cleage writes in a brisk and credible style, creating instantly recognizable characters. Some of the chapters are no more than a page long, and all of them have titles, some delicious, like "This Denzel Thing," "When Junior Started Trippin'." and "The Specificity of Snowflakes." The girls, especially the bright and responsible Tomika, are valiant, and the boys, especially the brutish Lattimore brothers, are wonderfully hateful. Joyce, though warm-hearted and giving, still has a core of resentment against the perfidy of men, though she was married to a loving and responsible one for many years. Yet Cleage herself is unflagging in her belief in the inherent strength of women.
I Wish I Had a Red Dress is a sensitive story of sisterhood, courage and self-determination, always leavened with touches of humor and compassion.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.