REVIEW: In Our Mothers' House by Patricia Polacco

Some of you have heard my Shakespeare spiel before: I recognize his talent. I bow to his genius. But he does nothing for me. I feel little while reading his work. There's some soulful part of me that Shakespeare just doesn't connect to (or the other way around - it's not that he's not connecting to me...for whatever reason, I'm not connecting with him).

Anyway, there are quite a few children's and YA authors that have the Shakespeare Effect on me: Nancy Farmer, Jerry Pinkney, Neil Gaiman, Giselle Potter. I just don't connect with their work for whatever reason. And here is another: Patricia Polacco. Her artwork and writing style just never swallowed me whole and left me a changed person. Which is basically what I look for in any book: has this book added something to my life?

Today, though, I am changed. After a pestering email to my connection at Penguin, I received an F&G of Patricia Polacco's In Our Mothers' House (April 2009). And it's just lovely. The story is about a family: two moms, three children, 2 cats, and 2 dogs. There is also a large extended family and a prevalent sense of community. The flap copy makes a big deal over one person in one family not accepting Marmee and Meema as a couple (the woman melodramatically "snarled" at them, "I don't appreciate what you two are!" in the middle of a block party) and I have to say I think this does the book a disservice.

After reading the book, it's not about those who aren't accepting or appreciative of this family - in fact, that aspect of the story feels so tacked on and out-of-place; it would have been better without it. Not to mention that it's not terribly realistic that this woman is living in Berkeley and being all intolerant...it's Berkeley.

That's pretty much my only complaint. Where this story stands out is in its descriptions of family and friends and the home. I love this scene:

At our table we didn't only eat, though. Marmee and Meema made sure of that. Everyone talked about everything. Politics, sports, music, and art. Their voices got louder and louder. Opera was always playing in the background. Then they'd burst into laughter that shook the table. Nonno would pound his fist and laugh the loudest. What I loved most about our family was that we could all speak our hearts. We never measured words.
And the whole story is this rich and gorgeous, with tales of treehouses, block parties, trick-or-treating, mother-daughter teas (my favorite scene - the art is fantastic). It is told from the perspective of the eldest daughter, and she is looking back on her childhood. There is definitely an adult-looking-back feeling in the narration, but I don't think it detracts here. Seeing all the kids grown-up in their wedding photos and seeing an older Marmee and Meema playing with a grandchild is poignant.

What I didn't expect was that this is a foodie book! Their Italian grandfather - Nonno - comes over and makes gnocchi. Apologies for the long excerpt, but you really need to read this from start to finish:

We'd all help him unload the perfect Roma tomatoes, the oxtails, the pork shanks and the beef brisket. We peeled onions, shaved and diced carrots and chopped fresh herbs from the garden.

After the sauce had been cooking for most of the day, all of us stood at the kitchen island. Nonno made a well in the middle of a hill of flour and broke several eggs into it. Then he riced very hot boiled potatoes right into the flour well. He'd shake his hands from the heat of it as he kneaded the volcano of flour, eggs and potatoes into a dough.

Then Marmee and Meema rolled the dough into long tubes. Millie and Will got to cut it into small pillows. Then I ran each pillow over the back of a floured fork. Nonno dropped the gnocchi into boiling water.

When they floated to the top, they were done. Sauce and potato dumplings were dished up, salads were made and baguettes of French bread from the bakery were carried to the table, where we were all so ready to eat.

Incredible, no? And it's illustrated beautifully with the whole family in a line, assembly style, laughing and hugging and making the gnocchi. And that's not the only food description - there's more!

You library folk will probably have read the negative review of this book in Kirkus and, quite frankly, I disagree with it. Which isn't the first time I've done so...and certainly won't be the last. Fascinatingly, Kirkus points out that each of the three children marries into a heterosexual, monoracial relationship...but when I first read the book, I thought the eldest (who is black) married a Caucasian man. He looked white to me, I guess. But now that I look again, I suppose one could argue that he is black as well. But I'm annoyed I'm even having this discussion - who cares?! So what?! The point I believe is being made by Polacco (and which I feel the reviewer missed) is that children of same-sex couples go on to lead beautiful, productive, happy lives...whether it be with someone of their own race, own sex, or something completely different. The point is that it doesn't matter - whatever makes them happy and fulfilled. I didn't feel that Polacco "undermined" her "obvious good intentions." But that's me. Anyone else care to chime in?

Ultimately, I don't know if this means I'll forever be a fan of Patricia Polacco but, for now, she has touched that soulful part of me.

Eat, drink, and celebrate families and the home.


Mrs. Karen said...

Laura, I had the privilege to hear Ms. Polacco speak last weekend at a reading conference. She touched briefly on 'Mother's House' which I had already seen in the bookshop for conference attendees. I have to admit, the book raised my eyebrows a bit until I heard the story behind the story. Ms. Polacco has teamed up with two other women to provide support for two young boys who suffered horrible abuse at the hands of their heterosexual parents. She and these women are providing a non-traditional family of sorts for these youngsters, which got her thinking about what it means to be a family. One of the themes in Ms. Polacco's stories is the love shared between family members, and in 'Mother's House', she makes the point that what a family looks like is not as important as the love they share. Hearing the background story behind 'Mother's House' changed my perception of it, which I hope happens for others who may be quick to dismiss the book. Of course, any book about family love must include food, which is why I'm glad Ms. Polacco made sure to include that wonderful cooking scene. I wonder how many readers it will inspire to cook with their own children or grandchildren or neighborhood kids! And bloggers who include awesome recipes in their blogs like you do only help the cause!

Marjorie said...

i love this thoughtful review. thanks so much for sharing it.

i adore some of polacco's work -- Mrs Katz and Tush reduces me to a quivering, sobbing mess (my kids are used to looking at me pityingly as i have to stop reading to gather myself) -- and some of it doesn't work for me (Someone for Mr Sussman made me want to yank my own eyeballs out -- ach, Bubbe, get a spine and some self-esteem!). i'm really looking forward to reading this one -- absolutely sounds to me like you got it right and the kirkus crabapple got it wrong.

Lisa said...

Exciting, I'll have to check it out. Hopefully my library, my Berkeley library to be specific, will have overlooked the negative review.

Unknown said...

Lisa, obviously I'd love to get your perspective on this book. Let me know if/when you read it.

Karen, thanks for sharing this info! Ms. Polacco got it perfect then because I really do believe she captured the loving aspects of this family in every way.

Mamele, as a fan of Ms. Polacco's work, I think I can predict that you'll really love this. And I really do feel that Kirkus got it wrong this time.