“No matter how long you have your mother, it’s never long enough.”
Diane McKinney-Whetstone is already one of my favorite authors of all time. Blues Dancing and Tempest Rising were novels that deeply affected me in my early 20s. So why did it take nearly five years to read Trading Dreams at Midnight? When it was published, I wasn’t as on point when it came to sticking to a reading list. Also, a few friends had read the book and complained that it wasn’t her best. “Don’t rush to read it. You’ll be disappointed,” they said.
Boy, was I wrong for listening to them!
Trading Dreams at Midnight is the beautifully written novel of grandmothers and mothers and daughters, dysfunctional familial relationships, and mental illness.
Nan’s daughter Freeda is mentally ill during a time when no one really knows what to call it. Freeda is just “off”. All Nan knows is that Freeda disappears often, so she prays about it. Things take a turn for the worst though, when Freeda has two baby girls, and starts leaving them behind when she disappears. Nan is soon saddled with the responsibility of raising her granddaughters, Neena and Tish. Teenaged Neena holds out hope that her mother will return, defiantly going against her grandmother’s wishes every chance she gets, while Tish, who has never known her mother to be reliable, has settled into being her grandmother’s favorite.
Dianne McKinney-Whestone writes about grandmother and granddaughter, constantly at odds, headstrong and defiant. Neither is ever satisfied with what the other wants, or how the other responds to their harsh reality: everything would be better if Freeda would act right, but she won’t so they suffer in each other’s presence. Eventually, Neena grows up, moves out and travels throughout the Midwest and east coast trying to find her mother while married men foot the bill. Nan settles into a comfortable life as a leader in her church and Tish’s gentle supporter.
After one of her loves turns his back on her, adult Neena is forced to return to her hometown and visit her sister. It is here when, McKinney-Whetstone begins telling the story in flashbacks, getting to the meat of the issues within the family: to Neena’s childhood; Nan’s early life as a young seamstress, new to Philadelphia and longing for love is also explored, which eventually leads to the story behind Nan’s marriage and Freeda’s upbringing. Both grandmother and granddaughter are forced to examine their personal pasts to better understand why they have grown to despise each other, and eventually explore if they will ever make amends.
I was initially intrigued by this story because I am what a friend of mine calls, a “Granny’s Girl.” I couldn’t imagine having a volatile relationship with my grandmother, and have always looked at all grandmothers as sugar, spice, and everything nice. But McKinney-Whetstone introduced me to a story where relationships are tense and strained due to circumstance. In building the story, her writing was so patient and warm and clear, that I wanted to fall into her words and curl into a ball and stay there. She builds full, strong characters, weaving in and out of multiple decades, making Black neighborhoods in Philadelphia feel like home.
As a fan of McKinney-Whetstone, I am mad at myself for taking so long to pick this up, especially since it was released in 2008 when I worked at Barnes & Noble, and passed by it nearly every single day, even placing it in the “Book Seller Recommended” shelf so others would buy it. I can already tell that this will be one of my favorite reads of the year.
I’d recommend this to those who enjoy literary fiction, stories of family life and history, Philadelphia stories, and novels of love and redemption.
Tagged as: Book review