Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Review: Mama's Child by Joan Steinau Lester


A Novel
by Joan Steinau Lester

A stunning tale about the deeply entrenched conflicts between a white mother and her biracial daughter.

For 30 years, award-winning author and educator Joan Steinau Lester has been on the forefront of defining and redefining what it means to be diverse. In her second novel, MAMA’S CHILD (Atria Paperbacks; 978-1-4516-9318-8; May 7, 2013; $15.00), she explores racial boundaries and melding points. Once again, as in Lester’s critically acclaimed novel Black, White, Other: The Search for Nina Armstrong, a biracial daughter struggles with her own issues of identity.

MAMA’S CHILD follows twenty-three years in the life of Lizzie O’Leary, an idealistic young white woman who travels to the American South as a civil rights worker. She meets, falls in love with, and marries Solomon Jordan, a musician and fellow activist, who is black. Together, the young couple settles in the more liberal San Francisco area and starts a family: daughter Ruby, and son Che. They remain deeply involved in the Black Liberation Movement: participating in protest marches, and living in a home filled with Black Power posters, jazz, protest songs, and visiting Black Panthers.

But by 1978, when the novel opens, there is tension between the couple. Solomon’s music career keeps him away from home too much, and Lizzie is frustrated: “I need you here. I can’t raise these kids by myself. And they need a black parent, some days I just don’t know what to do.” Eventually, the strain becomes unbearable, and they divorce when their children are still young.

Their divorce deeply affects daughter Ruby, who is already suffering from a confused sense of self—“Am I black or white?” she continually asks herself. “Where do I belong?” She struggles with her own racial identity as well as her anger at her mother for splitting up the family. As for mother Lizzie, despite her attempts at trying to hold on to the emotional cord that binds them, the rift between mother and daughter widens.

It isn’t until Ruby herself becomes a wife and mother that she begins to develop compassion and understanding for the many ways that her own mother’s love transcended race and questions of identity.

Told in chapters alternating between the voices of the mother and daughter,

MAMA’S CHILD goes deep into the raw emotions of love, family, and ancestry– from two points of view.


Original Trade Paperback
320 pages
May 7, 2013

With Foreword from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker

A stunning tale about the deeply entrenched conflicts between a white mother and her biracial daughter.

Mama’s Child is story of an idealistic young white woman who traveled to the American South as a civil rights worker, fell in love with an African American man, and started a family in San Francisco, where the more liberal city embraced them—except when it didn’t. They raise a son and daughter, but the tensions surrounding them have a negative impact on their marriage, and they divorce when their children are still young. For their biracial daughter, this split further destabilizes her already challenged sense of self— “Am I black or white?” she must ask herself, “Where do I belong?” Is she her father’s daughter alone?

As the years pass, the chasm between them widens, even as the mother attempts to hold on to the emotional chord that binds them. It isn’t until the daughter, Ruby, herself becomes a wife and mother that she begins to develop compassion and understanding for the many ways that her own mother’s love transcended race and questions of identity.

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This was a thought-provoking roller coaster ride with beautiful highs and devastating lows.

I immediately liked Ruby. She was fierce and passionate, even as a young girl. I was a bit on the fence about Liz. She seemed even more lost than her daughter, and her search to find her true self has constantly forced on Ruby. It was like Liz thought if her daughter was okay and knew her place in the world, then automatically she’d find peace. I didn’t agree with many of the decisions Liz made and her constant disregard for her daughter’s feelings only made things worse.

Even though Liz believed she was doing right by her family, especially Ruby, much of what she did or said could very easily be misconstrued. It was easy to see why Ruby felt so alienated by her. As a biracial child, Ruby’s family had been divided, in her mind, by color, leaving her confused and flailing to find any semblance of a normal life. When she really needed a solid parental figure to guide her, there was none. Yes, Liz was there but she had so much going on in her own life, that she hardly noticed Ruby’s struggles.

To be totally fair, Liz did really have her daughter’s best interests at heart, but she just went about everything in the wrong way that it constantly looked like Ruby wasn’t a priority, and this only fed Ruby’s bitterness. If Liz had been a little more sensitive to the situations she placed her daughter in, maybe then they would have both understood each other enough to have a happy relationship. At the same time, if Ruby had just taken the time to see things from her mother’s perspective, perhaps she would have realized just how much herself her mother had given up.

Not that is was always bad. There were fantastic moments of love and understanding shared between the two; even at times when they hated each other. I liked how each felt defensive when an outsider attacked the other; that dynamic that allows only family to question or dislike each other. At times Ruby was contradictory, telling Liz how much she appreciated her “white” way of raising her so that she felt she could do anything she wanted, and the next complaining about her mother’s “white” way of thinking. Ruby’s harshness with Liz at a later stage in her life was shocking. I couldn’t understand how a daughter could loathe her mother so much. Liz wasn’t perfect, but she was her mother!

I felt that Ruby’s issues with Liz went far deeper than racism but Ruby attacked her mother the only way she knew how. She refused to face their problems head on so she found little things to blame her mother for, never really getting to the root of the problem. It was a real slap in the face that she looked to other mother figures for guidance. Perhaps if she had given Liz a chance, she would have seen just how much her mother had grown and changed; as much as she had, if not more.    

It was interesting to see the relationship between these two characters unfold. It made me reflect on my relationship with my own mother, because even though this book held a strong message about racism and the fight for equality, it was the mother-daughter relationship that kept the momentum going.

This book gripped me from the start and left me emotionally exhausted. It was a fantastic read and deserves nothing less than...

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“An astonishing accomplishment. The most passionate, the most honest and brave of books… riveting art.”
— Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker
“Lester’s poignant narrative probes the relationship between a mother and her biracial daughter...Lester writes well about a subject familiar to her: She’s a member of a biracial family, and her previous book, geared toward young adults, addresses the same issue. No matter a person’s ethnic or cultural background, this book is relatable.”
— Kirkus Reviews
Mama’s Child is a deeply felt novel of a daughter on a quest for selfhood and a mother striving to come back to her own. Through alternating perspectives, Lester sensitively illuminates the challenges of living in a world still viewed through the filter of race. This is reminiscent of Alix Kates Shulman’s Burning Questions (1978) in terms of a woman’s consciousness awakening through a historic social movement.
— Booklist

Mama's Child is a welcome addition to the growing body of mixed race literature. Joan Steinau Lester's innovation is a shift in gaze from the experience of the confused child to the often-overlooked, complicated white mother. It's a turn that's long overdue.”
— Emily Raboteau, author of Searching for Zion
“A stunning portrait of a family amidst the agony of recovery from near-drowning in the sea of racism.”
— Jewelle Gomez, novelist & playwright



“The simple contrapuntal narrative of Sarah Armstrong’s escaping slavery distinguishes the book emotionally and psychologically, raising it above other issue oriented Young Adult novels. Lester writes with social sensitivity and an ear for teen language and concerns. This is engaging treatment of a challenging subject that comes with little precedent.”
— Starred Publishers Weekly Review

“The tenderness and truth of your book moved my heart. As well as the enormous love you have.”
Alice Walker
“Made me more aware of the challenges biracial teens face.”
— A Few More Pages

“Insightful and engaging...Black, White, Other rings true from Page 1. It hooked me very quickly and I think anyone who's felt different as a teenager or has gone through a divorce can empathize with what Nina is going through. This novel is going to appeal to teens and adults alike.”

“Teens will be caught by the alternating stories, and yes, by the messages about...prejudice, then and now, which will make for great group discussion.”
— Booklist

“Joan Lester knows how to get inside a girl’s head. Nina feels like someone you know or really want to know. Readers will cheer her one as she faces the fundamental question of who she is and who she wants to be.”
— Marissa Moss, author of the bestselling Amelia's Notebook series. 


“A well-framed memoir, satisfyingly candid while also abrim with political theory. A gratifying biography.”
— Kirkus Reviews

“A rip-roaring political biography.”
— SF Chronicle

“Lester’s thorough portrait is a compelling and inspiring homage to a legacy still in progress.”
— Publishers Weekly


“Peppered with humorous, helpful anecdotes, provides a lively jump-start to goalsetting.”
— Ms.


“In its chatty, no-nonsense way, puts all the taboos on the’s tricky territory, but in Lester’s hands, the paths are clear.”
— San Francisco Chronicle
“A warm, inviting book by a diversity consultant that doesn't toe the political party lines.”
— Orange County Register

“Lester’s generous voice sheds keen insight, humor and practical advice on the polarizing dilemmas of living with diversity.”
— Urvashi Vaid


Dr. Joan Steinau Lester is an award-winning commentator and author of four critically acclaimed books: Eleanor Holmes Norton: Fire In My Soul; The Future of White Men and Other Diversity Dilemmas; Taking Charge: Every Woman's Action Guide; and her first novel, Black, White, Other: The Search For Nina Armstrong. She has won the NLGJA Seigenthaler Award in journalism and the Arts & Letters Creative Nonfiction Finalist Award. Taking Charge was nominated as a Best Women's Book by the San Francisco Women's Heritage Museum and Mama's Child was a Bellwether Prize finalist.

After receiving her doctorate in multicultural education, Dr. Lester served as the Executive Director of the Equity Institute, which pioneered the diversity wave of the '80s and '90s, for sixteen years. As a member of a biracial family, Lester’s lifelong passion has been writing about issues of racial identity. Her former husband and father of her children was black; she has been with a female partner/spouse for over thirty years. Lester’s writing has appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including

Essence, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle,
Huffington Post, and Cosmopolitan. She lives in Northern California.

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