Review by Rachel Mans McKenny
Fairy tale re-tellings are popular, and when I tell you that a book features a young girl, whose mother keeps her at home, bound with a bit of her hair and a little bit of magic, you might be tempted to call it a fairy tale. It isn’t a fairy tale in the fantastic world of gold-brick roads and happy endings, but it is a story of wickedness and white supremacy having far too much say in the lives of a family. Delores Phillips The Darkest Child could be considered an anti-fairy tale. And it shook me to the core. Please read The Darkest Child. Let me tell you why.
The Darkest Child follows Rozelle Quinn and her ten children in rural Georgia, 1958. Set against a backdrop of segregation and integration, the Quinn family struggles not only against racist society, but also mental illness and abuse by Rozelle and the men in her life. Phillips tells the story from the perspective of Tangy Mae, who is not the oldest nor youngest child, not unique in being the only girl, and in fact, her most significant difference in her mother’s eye seems to be that she is “the darkest child.”
Tangy Mae, like every heroine in a fairy tale, longs for something outside of the world she has. Belle wants escape from the ordinary, Cinderella wants to go to the ball, and Snow White wants her prince and throne. Unlike struggling against the boredom of everyday life like most fairy tale heroines, Tangy Mae longs to graduate high school and leave her mother’s house (and control). In many ways, the closest analog to Tangy Mae’s story is Rapunzel. Finally, like Rapunzel, Rozelle Quinn hopes to maintain control of her children through cutting and keeping locks of hair. Instead of a witch’s power, Rozelle uses the passage from Exodus to bind her children: Honor thy mother.
Phillips’ own work in a shelter for abused women reflects in the work. Without spoiling major plot points, I can say that some of the descriptions of violence in this book made me gasp. At one point, I had to pull my car over on the highway because the scene was getting too intense—audiobooks can be hazardous. Even when not violent in action, Rozelle controls her children financially by taking their paychecks and alternates kindness and cruelty as a way of control. This cycle of abuse is each Quinn child’s inheritance.
This book, needless to say, contains trigger warnings.
Both Tangy Mae and Rapunzel long to see the world, escape the control of their keepers, and find true love, but Rapunzel’s loneliness actually allows for her eventual escape. Rapunzel absconds with her prince, leaving no one behind to mourn her or pay the consequences. Tangy Mae’s attempts at freedom, on the other hand, are often thwarted by the sheer existence of her siblings. For instance, midway through the novel Rozelle taps Tangy Mae to start visiting the brothel, named The Farmhouse. When Tangy Mae attempts to protest, Rozelle threatens to bring her eight-year-old sister Laura in her place. Tangy learns that her elder sisters had been brought to The Farrmhouse before her.
In many ways, all of forces against Tangy Mae feel harder than anything imagined in a fairy tale. There is no single dragon or wall of thorns: there is the racist, self-appointed “lawman” Chad Low, the unnamed mental illness that drives Rozelle to constantly scratch at invisible bugs, and even the environment around the old house: briars, sinking mud, leaking roofs, and rats breeding in the field.
The rescuing forces, too, fall short in their ability to fight off these demons. There is no Prince Charming to scale the tower. The men in the novel have just as little agency as the women to enact any meaningful change in the lives of the Quinn children. None of the men can rescue Tangy, and in fact, Tangy must rescue some of her family before the story is through.
The Darkest Child undermines fairy tale conventions in the complexity of the foe, the close bonds to some of the abusers, and the inability to be rescued. Ultimately, it is a story of a young girl’s struggle against erasure. She wants her story to be her own, her struggle to be recognized, and her fight to mean something. This story is hard. It is very hard, and it is important.
Fairy tales call for the idea of a single story—the girl who tries on a shoe and gets a prince, the girl in the glass coffin awakened with a kiss. Even as we retell the story, twist it into a fresh tale, we know the ending, don’t we? The Darkest Child features a complex heroine struggling against societal violence and bias against her skin color, fighting for education and self-determination. It’s a story about intersectionality—class, race, and gender. It’s also just a really good story. The prose is rich and the plot is extremely compelling. Up to the last minutes of the audio book, I didn’t know what would happen to Tangy Mae, and I cared so deeply that my chest hurt. The Darkest Child is a book that takes racism and abuse and calls it into the light. It is a book that reminds us not to ignore our country’s history of violence, racism and misunderstanding of mental illness, and that reminder is more important by the day.
The Darkest Child by Delores Phillips, Soho Press 2005
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Rachel Mans McKenny is a writer and reader living in the Midwest. She is one of the editors of Books that Shook Us and co-founder of The Litsy Feminist Bookclub.