Neeny Coming, Neeny Going.
Dianne Johnson-Feelings University of South Carolina
The note to the reader in the book's front matter is problematic. Describing the setting of the story, the author writes that Daufuskie Island, off the coast of South Carolina, "was the home of a culture that blended American and West African customs." The author continues, "The language, too, was a blend of African and English." The simple addition of the word languages after African would render this statement much clearer and more accurate. A detail such as this is important in a children's book, especially when part of the writer's implied intent is to educate her reader. In particular, Karen English calls attention to the historical moment during the fifties when many sea islanders were displaced because pollution was destroying their oyster beds and, thus, part of their way of life. Fortunately, the story is neither a history nor a linguistics book. Rather, it is a lyrically written piece of fiction that is concerned, most of all, with the idea of change, a concern that is shared by both Karen English, the author, and Synthia Saint James, the illustrator.
The tension in Neeny Coming, Neeny Going revolves around the strained relationship between two cousins who "used to live like sisters": Essie, the narrator, and Neeny, who now lives on the mainland but has returned to 'Fuskie Island for a visit. An entire five pages are devoted to Essie announcing Neeny's impending arrival to an extended family that includes their grandmother, called Dada, who is hanging on the line a white sheet that "flutters like the wing of a bird"; Uncle Dink, mending his crab net; and Grandpa, driving his oxcart down the road. As English sketches the setting with words, Saint James paints the sheet such that the viewer can see it billow. Saint James opens up her usually spare style, characterized by colorful silhouettes, with the effective use of texture to represent netting, tall grasses, Essie's braids, the grandmother's sweetgrass basket, and the movement of the waters of the river. (The one opportunity for including detail that Saint James does not take advantage of occurs when Essie rakes "a pretty swirly pattern" into the front yard, which Saint James paints flat green). The waters are the focus of Saint James's first two double-page spreads, a format that she makes use of masterfully and movingly in this book. As the boat transporting Neeny rounds the corner of the bend, which is the corner of Saint James's page, Essie thinks to herself, "Ah . . . is that Neeny? I squint my eyes. She seem different. But, no mind - Neeny here!"
Neeny is different in the most negative sense. She appreciates nothing about life on Daufuskie Island; she devalues everything. Mr. Frogmore exclaims upon her arrival," 'So you back among us, Neeny!'" But the actual case is that she believes that she is above them. As Essie observes later, for the most part, "Neeny talk about Neeny." She values things such as her new suitcases and her leisure, participating in none of the everyday work that needs doing. She brags that her mother works for a high-class family in Charleston and can afford to send her to a beauty parlor to get Shirley Temple curls instead of the braids Dada plaits with her "fast fingers." Neeny's own "fingers forget what Dada show them" and so can no longer bundle sweetgrass. She declares that chocolate is superior to the traditional benne candy made by the community's midwife. It is quite significant that she repudiates African American aesthetics with her negative reaction to a square of a quilt made from a dress she once loved: "'I don't know why I ever like a dress with bright, clashy colors like that, so loud they scream at you.'" Perhaps most seriously, she fails to recognize the wisdom of her grandmother, focusing instead on what she considers her shortcomings. When she learns that Dada is afraid for Essie to travel by boat across the water, she concludes," 'That's because she don't know no better.'"
In one of Saint James's strongest images in the book, the braiding scene, Neeny towers over Dada and Essie. But near the end of the book, she is just one figure among many when the community gives her a going away party, a scene which is reminiscent of Saint James's Daughters, inspired by Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust It is clear to the reader that the community will continue to embrace Neeny partly because its members understand that she does not know any better. But, ultimately, she is a part of them. When the people tell their stories and sing and dance, Neeny does too. She departs on a positive note, with a gift from Essie to be opened later, a gift given in all sincerity from a cousin who on one occasion has been moved, as well, to stick out her tongue at Neeny behind her back. The reader knows the gift is the quilt she does not yet fully appreciate. Neeny's gift to Essie is an invitation to visit soon, but Neeny questions what soon means in this case. "'Soon to Dada mean when I get a lot bigger. I don't know what soon mean to me.'" The books then ends with the tentative, disquieting words, "In the boat Neeny look back and wave. I wave back and think, Neeny come - and now Neeny go."
What on first reading seems like an unsatisfactory, unsatisfying conclusion is, in fact, an invitation to the reader to think about the meanings of time and change and journey and transition. It is a challenging, appropriate ending to a story that speaks to readers of all ages, as any good piece of children's literature does.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1997|
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