Sacramento-based Terris McMahan Grimes, who grew up in West Oakland, has received the 21st Annual Northern California Publishers and Authors first place award for general fiction. Her novel traces the life of an African American family in Oakland, told by its youngest member, Bernadine.
“We weren’t Ozzie and Harriet or anything like that, but none of the families living in Chestnut Court projects in 1964 were. We were just a plain ol’ family with a daddy who went to work early in the morning carrying a lunch pail, and who came home after dark all covered in creosote, a mama who worked for a white family up in the Oakland hills, and two girls, me and my sister Chantelle. She was thirteen. I was eleven.”
“Smelling Herself” ($15 in paperback from CreateSpace; also for Amazon Kindle) plunges the reader into Bernadine’s life. Her parents love her, but there were whuppins. “Whuppins were like kid taxes we paid with our behinds. We didn’t get ‘spankings’ either. … Our mamas wrapped extension cords around their hands or made us strip switches from the trees outside our bedroom windows, and they used them to leave welts on our bare arms and legs, make us do holy dances, shout out the Lord’s name, and make promises we knew we couldn’t keep.”
The book’s title means “acting beyond your age,” but Bernie is confronted with adult decisions when she hears Jessie Mae, Chantelle’s age, being horribly abused upstairs by her mother’s “boyfriend,” a man called “The Sheik.” Bernadine must confront the night, and her fears, and though there is ultimately hope born of tragedy, the tragedy is real.
“People are always taking about ‘broken heart’ this and ‘broken heart’ that, but let me tell you, it’s not just the heart that breaks. Your eyes scale over, stop working, and you go blind; your lungs seize up, stealing your breath away; your stomach somehow finds glass to grind; your skull cracks open, letting flies get at your brain; and for one tiny second, you wish you were dead too.”