The Language of Sycamores by Lisa Wingate
Another one from the library of Grandma 🙂
“Karen Sommerfield has been hiding from the big questions of her life—the emotional distance in her marriage, her inability to have children, and her bout with cancer. Getting lost in her high-powered career provides the sense of purpose she yearns for. Until the day she’s downsized out of her job and the doctor tells her the cancer may be back. It’s a double blow that would send anyone reeling.
It sends Karen to Grandma Rose’s old farm, where her sister has made a seemingly perfect life. Opening herself to the unexpected, Karen finds a lonely child in need of nurturing and insights into her family’s past. In the quiet of the Missouri Ozarks, where the sycamore leaves whisper their soft, secret language, she discovers answers—and a joy to make her life complete.”
Characters and Plot
Karen is a typical middle-aged burn-out with family issues. Years of competitions for her father’s approval strained her relationship with her sister, a perfectionist homemaker. These characters were relatable, but my favorite character by far is Dell, the shy little girl who comes alive with music. The author does a phenomenal job of building empathy for Dell, and I found myself routing for her the entire book. I also like how Dell brings out different sides of the other characters, like Karen’s husband, who plays guitar and does Elvis impressions.
I am a sucker for found family stories, so I enjoyed the plot. The perfect story for curling up on the couch with a mug of hot tea.
The writing style of this book was too explanatory for me. The author seemed to think I needed her to explain how Karen was feeling. I would rather she depicted more dramatic scenes and let me experience Karen’s emotions for myself. Also, flashbacks litter the beginning of the book, which made the pace slow to start.
Despite containing a sermon, this book is not preachy. The single sermon helps drive the plot. My only criticism is the ending, where the author gives God credit for everything that happens. It felt forced, as if the author finished the story and thought, “Shoot, I was supposed to make this a Christian book” and slapped three inspirational paragraphs together. I would rather Karen spent more time throughout the book questioning God about her circumstances, or had the final scene in a church or near one. Then her reflections would be more natural.
I liked the book, but I hate the cover. Karen is a middle-aged career-focused woman who burned out of a high-stress job in the tech industry. The cover image makes her look like an over-zealous millennial babysitter about to snap an Instagram photo of her avocado toast. I could forgive that, but the depiction of Dell is a crime.
Dell comes from a low socioeconomic status in an abusive home. We only ever see her uncle’s verbal abuse, but the storyline hints at worse. She also cares for her ill grandmother. The cover image, however, gives no hints of her home life, no dirt or patches on her clothes, no tangles in her hair, no ill-fitting or mismatched clothes.
The worst by far is the girl’s skin. Dell is half African American. The girl on the cover? Paler than I am after hibernating through a nine-month long Montana winter.
Dell is half African American. The girl on the cover? Paler than I am after hibernating through a nine-month long Montana winter.
Dell’s uncle disparages her for having a “n—r father.” His constant verbal abuse affects her confidence, her self-worth, and her ability to trust others. Even the way she moves, silently, and the way she interacts with a group—staying on the edges and covering her face with her hair—reflects her poor self-image. Her skin tone is an integral part of her character, one that affects the way she behaves in the story. Simply put, Dell cannot be white* and still be Dell.
Dell cannot be white and still be Dell.
How many people on the publishing team gave that cover their approval? Don’t get me wrong; it’s a good image. The title is clear; the tone is consistent with the genre; and the image evokes the desired emotion. It’s a good cover, just not for this book.
Our media is whitewashed enough. People shouldn’t have to take a brown sharpie to their surroundings to see themselves depicted, especially not when the character in the book is already described as having “cinnamon-colored skin.” You can’t tell me there were no pictures of adorable brown girls they could have used.
People shouldn’t have to take a brown sharpie to their surroundings to see themselves depicted.Tweet
Did I enjoy the book? Yes. The explanations and flashbacks were not disruptive enough to detract from the storyline, which was heartwarming.
I enjoyed the book, but I’d be lying if I said that cover didn’t make me want to rage out of my winter den like a grizzly on the hunt for stupid tourists.
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*By “white” here, I mean 100% white like the girl on the cover. Dell already is 50% Caucasian.
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