When Ruby Jackson, one of the main characters in Joan Steinau Lester’s wonderful novel “Mama’s Child,” turns 23, she makes a decision: She writes her mother a letter saying she needs time away.
This decision has far reaching repercussions — positive and negative — for Ruby. But first Lester shows how the relationship between Elizabeth, a white woman, and Ruby, her biracial daughter, came to this turning point, including the painful divorce of Ruby’s parents after 15 years of marriage and the conflicts that emerge as Elizabeth and Ruby begin their journeys of self-discovery.
Elizabeth and Ruby narrate their own chapters, allowing readers to see each woman’s perspective of events; this narrative device also deftly serves as a tool to fill in missing information.
With a gripping storyline, Lester holds nothing back when it comes to conversation about race, identity and family. At one point, a young Ruby wonders:
“Now that it was only Mama and me, was I gonna turn white, just the two of us living together? Honestly, sometimes I stared at my arm next to hers when we were doing something close ... and every time I saw my brown skin, whew. I was still me! But it was like they separated us into the Black family and the Other one.”
Most touching are Lester’s exploration of ancestry. Ruby’s parents provide her with a firm understanding of her family so as Ruby struggles with identity, eventually becoming a mother, she reaches back for those stories and sense of belonging.Every child must leave the nest and grow into her own person. But in “Mama’s Child,” Ruby also learns the value of holding on to her roots, making this a moving novel about mothers and daughters and the power of family.