‘What’s Mine and Yours’ by Naima Coster
–by Gail Bishop
“I thought I loved my wife–I do. But you’d do anything for your kids. It’s like something changes in your brain. They climb in there and take over. They’re the ones in charge. They don’t know it but they are.”
This novel, centered on parenting and the decisions we make with the intention of improving our children’s lives, contains the most complex characters I’ve come across in modern fiction. All are flawed. Jade, Ruth, Hank, Lacey May and Robbie are by turns infuriating and sympathetic. The author manages to take what may seem like simple issues (all children deserve the same chance in life) and dissects the gray areas. She makes the reader understand that nothing about raising children, educating children, combating racism or dealing with addiction is simple-in fact they are the most complex issues we as a society have to face and attempt to resolve. It’s a heavy but captivating read.
The novel spans over twenty years but chronologically begins in 1992 in Piedmont, North Carolina. A senseless act of violence in the first twenty pages changes the trajectory of the lives of Jade and her son Gee. Their plans for the future are upended and Jade has to figure out how they move forward. Jade sets out to control the events she can and decides Gee will be attending the neighboring (mostly white) high school. This decision is based on her desire to improve Gee’s life but he sees it as an unnecessary change in his friend group as well as having to learn in an unfamiliar environment where he (along with several other classmates) will stand out as one of the few students of color. Jade does not listen to his concerns and railroads him into enrolling.
Lacey May is trying to raise three girls with a husband, Robbie, who is an addict. Robbie is from Columbia but Lacey May refuses to look at her daughters as anything other than “white.” She, like Jade, is trying to control what she can and in her mind that means doing everything in her power to ensure these students from the other side of town never step foot in her daughters’ school system.
The school board meeting to discuss the new situation contains fairly predictable stances from both sides of the issue. One parent says, “Now we are going to have these kids-these kids who are coming from failing schools-making up twenty-five percent of every grade … they are going to hold our kids back! These kids aren’t where our kids are in their education or their home training. And it may not be their fault, but it’s not my kid’s fault either!” Another parent is concerned her son’s class rank might be affected by these students who are “hand-picked” because they are star students. “What has my son been working for if these students are going to come in underneath his nose and steal everything he’s been working for, and everything we’ve all been working for? Everything we do is for him.” And most terrifying of all, the parent who worries these students will bring violence. “Am I the only one who is going to say it? These kids could be bad kids. How are you going to keep our kids safe?”
As Gee sits there listening to the complaints, he becomes more and more demoralized. His friend, Adira, steps up to the podium to address the hostile crowd. “My family has been here for generations, too. And I deserve my future as much as anybody else. It hurts to know I’m not welcome here, a school that’s only fifteen minutes away from my house, all because of the color of my skin.” A man responds, “This is not about race. This is about fairness. We don’t have to give up our rights to the whims of whoever is in office right now. I am not a racist and it’s criminal for you to suggest that I am.”
This statement causes Jade to react. “We haven’t had our lives handed to us, like some of the people in this room. For a lot of you, your kids coming to this school is just them inheriting what is rightfully theirs–the future they’ve been headed toward since they were born. But for my son, it’s a change in his fate.”
Predictably, both Gee and Noelle (Lacey May’s daughter) are not happy about their parents’ activism. Gee tells Jade, “I just want to fit in, and you’re talking like you’re going to war.” Lacey May rebuts Jade’s argument. “How dare you say anything in my life has been handed to me! If your husband wants what is best for your son, he should move to this district fair and square. I made sacrifices to get here and I’m not just going to give it up so you can get handed what you think you deserve.”
This conflict occurs in the first pages of this novel and it is the aftermath that makes up the remainder of the story. The ironic twist occurs when the students do attend the new school and it is predictably not that big of a deal. Although a few altercations occur, eventually the students learn to live with each other in relative harmony. In fact, Gee and Noelle bond over the school’s theatrical presentation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure about Isabella, a young nun in training who must give up her virginity to save her brother.
That’s why the cocktail for this book is called Isabella’s Vespers: 10 black tapioca pearls (boba), three ounces of gin, one ounce of vodka and ½ ounce of orange liqueur. Place boba in boiling water and cook for five minutes. Drain and cool. Place boba in the bottom of a martini glass. Shake the gin, vodka and liqueur with ice and strain over the boba. Garnish with a lemon peel.