Book Review: Tumbling, by Diane McKinney- Whetstone
I’m an avid reader, and what I love to read most are novels about Black love. One of my favorite books is Tumbling (1996), by Diane McKinney-Whetstone. I decided to revisit the text for my book blog and I found it just as enthralling as I did when I read it twenty years ago. This is a story that does not disappoint.
“Sunday morning in South Philly, according to McKinney-Whetstone, is ""like buttermilk,"" with ""a quiet smoothness to it."" The same can be said of this remarkable first novel. A gentle portrait of an African American community in South Philadelphia in the 1940s and '50s, the story probes beneath its residents' lives to tell a powerful tale of damage and healing. As the threat looms of a highway to be built through the church-centered neighborhood, individual characters find their fates, and the delicately passionate narrative coalesces around a soul-galvanizing metaphor of bricks and mortar and spirit.”
The story begins as Herbie comes home from a night out and finds a baby on his doorstep. He and his wife Noon have no children because, though married a year and very much in love, she cannot bring herself to have sex after a traumatizing childhood experience that she can’t even speak about. They immediately fall in love with the baby and later take in another abandoned child, the five-year-old niece of Ethel, Herbie’s longtime lover. As Ethel moves on to pursue her career as a jazz singer in New York, Noon and Herbie raise the two girls as a family. Herbie finds his solace with the women he meets in clubs, while Noon embraces her church and prays with her pastor for healing. After the girls reach adulthood and move out on their own, surprising secrets are exposed as the community and church fight against inevitable gentrification and destruction. Though a fiction novel, this story reflects the all too common chipping away of thriving Black communities by greedy outsiders who want their homes to make a profit, to take back the cities they, themselves, have abandoned.
“McKinney-Whetstone convincingly presents the community's fight for self-determination as the outward manifestation of the psychic struggle of African-Americans during a period of tremendous social and cultural turmoil. A gifted prose writer with a tremendous sense of place, McKinney-Whetstone shows the potential here to move up the ranks of novelists currently exploring the African-American experience.”
Tumbling is a novel about love, community, and forgiveness. It explores the fate of the Great Migration and the attack on established, flourishing communities. McKinney-Whetstone’s skill with language recalls the characters and settings of Toni Morrison. This was the first of many literary masterpieces.
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Her other novels include Tempest Rising, Blues Dancing, Leaving Cecil Street, Trading Dreams at Midnight, and Lazaretto. They are all set in Philadelphia, from the 1860s to the 1990s, and share lyrically described settings and creatively developed characters from all walks of life. At the end of her home page on her website, mckinney-whetstone.com, she wrote, "In my latest novel, Lazaretto, I return to doing what I most love to do: telling stories of everyday people existing in families and communities; characters faltering, yielding to their desires, falling, fighting, climbing, reaching for their better selves." That's something we can all relate to. You'll never go wrong with a novel by Diane McKinney-Whetstone.