I have developed a minor obsession with book covers. Yes, I know - we're always told not to judge books by their covers, but it's very hard not to choose books, in part, based on their covers. Wandering through a bookstore or library, I see the illustration, it piques my interest (or not); I read the cover blurb or reviews on the back cover, they draw me in (or not); only then do I actually read a few pages and see if this is a book I'm going to invest some time in (or not). And yet, it is almost comical how misleading so many of these covers are: often, it feels like the marketing department wrote the jacket copy without actually reading the book.
The cover of Mishna Wolff's I'm Down: A Memoir
bills the book as the memoir of a white girl, whose white father truly believes he's black and embarks on a lifelong crusade to make his daughter hip. The daughter first finds herself unable to fit in, as the most unhip white girl in a black school and neighborhood; later, her mother arranges for her to attend an accelerated school program for the academically gifted - at which point Mishna can't fit in socially with the well-to-do white kids at that school.
To quote some of the publisher's text: "I'm Down is a hip, hysterical, and at the same time beautiful memoir that will have you howling with laughter ... and questioning what it means to be black and white in America."
This is an interesting spin, because although the general outline is correct, I didn't find myself either howling or questioning. Rather, I found myself stunned at the abject poverty in which some families in America live, and appalled at what passes for parenting in some households. Also, I am awed that a person could be raised in such shocking conditions, and live to tell the tale so eloquently.
The book starts off explaining how the family came to live in a predominantly black area, and then describes how the author finds herself and her younger sister being raised by their father, a man whose occupation is laughably described as "contractor," rather than by their mother, a woman who worked two jobs and clearly didn't want to leave her children behind. The father is a bully, and the mother lacks the strength to deal with him, although she makes efforts, from the sidelines, to improve her daughters' lives; notably, she arranges for Mishna to be moved into a program for gifted children and receive a better education than she might have otherwise.
So, while mom is working two jobs and trying to improve her daughters' lives, what is dad doing? Unfortunately, he is providing lots of evidence that for some people, at least, poverty is their own damn fault*. He starts a lot of projects that he doesn't finish: at one point he tears out half their front yard because he is going to start some home-expansion project, which never happens, leaving the family entering the house for the next decade through the side door, as there is a 20-foot drop outside the front door. There is a mention of a huge pile of glass that was purchased to build a greenhouse and then just sat in the back yard. In another scene, Mishna's stepmother, who marries her father and then finds herself supporting the entire family even though she is barely 25, is dressed to go out and looking splendid - in a bathroom that is missing a wall, as the father tore out the wall at the start of a remodeling project, but then never got any further with it. When Mishna finally leaves home, in her late teens, she approaches this shamble of a house and realizes that her father had managed to "out-ghetto the ghetto."
Reading along, I found myself caring deeply about Mishna and looking for hope that, at any page, she would find herself removed from the squalor. Page after page, I wondered, Where the hell is that fairy godmother? Although opportunities for escape seem to present themselves, her father blocks them - he wants to keep his daughters. And while it's fair enough that a parent should want to be with their children, it also becomes clear that he doesn't want his children to be any better than he is. As Mishna progresses in school, her father and stepmother keep piling more burdens on her, and gradually the realization comes: they don't want her to succeed, and are actively trying to obstruct her.
As heartbreaking as it is, I loved I'm Down. The author takes a gentler view of her father than I was able to - she clearly loves him, in spite of it all. That generosity of spirit is probably what amazed me the most - not only does Mishna Wolff manage to overcome the terrible obstacles put in her way, she does so with grace.
* No, I do not think everyone is to blame for their own misfortunes, financial or otherwise, nor should this statement in any way be taken to imply that I do.