A Review of
What’s Mine and Yours: A Novel
Reviewed by J. Brent Bill
As I’m reading this important novel, the trial of Derek Chauvin for causing the death of George Floyd and the shooting of Daunte Wright by police officer Kim Potter are in the news. The red stain of racism flows through our nation’s history and streets today and makes Coster’s novel both timely and hopefully, timeless.
Set largely in a city in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, the two main protagonists are Jade and Lacey May. The story opens in 1992 but moves back and forth between the present and past. Jade and Lacey May are both strong women. One black. One white. Both are beset by personal tragedies and bad choices. Both are activists, or so they think, for their children. Throughout the novel, we meet their children and watch them grow up.
In Jade’s case, it’s her son Gee. Gee is a brilliant, sensitive young man who has the opportunity, as Jade sees it, to be in the first class that is fully integrating the local high school in 2002. It’s his chance to be in a better school with better facilities, teachers, and resources.
In Lacey May’s case, it’s her daughters, Noelle, Diane, and Margarita. In 2002, Noelle is already a student at Central High, with her sisters soon to follow. Lacey May sees the arrival of the students of color from the poorer east side—whom she refers to as “the transfers”– as dragging the school down and denying her daughters the place that she’s worked so hard for. She becomes an ardent activist resisting this change. She insists; it’s not about race. And Lacey May is right. Well, at least somewhat. It’s not just about race. Especially in this novel. And in the United States today.
Though this novel is set in North Carolina, the issues tackled through these wise and wonderful story-telling people with compelling character, are not predominantly “southern” issues. In that vein, it reminds me of Randy’s Newman’s 1974 song “Rednecks” which starts out as an ironic indictment of southern attitudes towards race, then quickly turns to skewer northern racism – a perhaps less-obvious, on-the-surface racism– but all the more insidious because of its hiddenness. As a Midwestern white male of certain age, I’ve often heard the “it’s not about race” statement. Here in Indiana where I have lived for over forty years, and where the Ku Klux Klan ruled one hundred years ago (one-third of male Hoosiers were affiliated with the Klan at its height here – including the leaders of the legislature, the governor, and protestant clergy), it is sometimes pointed out that the KKK was not just about white supremacy and black subjugation; it was also about the temperance movement and family (Women and children had their own Klan organizations and participated with the men in marches and rallies and picnics!).
Coster makes clear that the “it’s not about race” statement is partly true; it’s also about class, education, gender bias, and all the other prejudices we allow into our lives and society. But race is central to Jade’s and Lacey May’s story – and ours.
What’s Mine and Yours is rich in compelling characters besides Jade, Lacey May, and their children. There are the male partners of these women – primarily Ray for Jade, and Robbie of Colombian descent and Hank for Lacey May. All three of them are haunting figures in their own ways and for their own reasons. Some of them wind through the entire narrative. Then there are the friends, lovers, neighbors, and teachers who populate and enliven this novel. Each, just like Jade and Lacey May, have their own agendas and viewpoints to push. As do we all. At one point in the book, Gee listened to an uncomfortable conversation where opposing viewpoints collided and observed, “There was nothing the grown-ups could do to watch over them, really, although they liked to talk as if they had control. They could go on talking, as far as Gee was concerned. It was mostly for themselves anyway. It was what they needed to get by.”
As the novel nears its conclusion, the school’s lone black teacher, Mr. Riley, sponsors a school play in hopes of bringing the regulars and the transfers and their parents together. The play he chooses is Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.” Both Noelle and Gee have roles in the production. Can art help redeem this situation?
As I progressed through the novel, the title of a Flannery O’Connor short story kept coming to mind – “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” And, in the hands of skilled writer Naima Coster, everything that rises in this novel does converge. It’s a satisfying read in that way.
Another parallel between this novel and O’Connor’s story is that they are about racial issues in a time of integration in unnamed southern cities. Of course, there are differences dictated by form. O’Connor’s is condensed in time and scope, while Coster has the time and space to deeply explore her characters, their inner lives and outer actions, their flaws and virtues, their humanity, and society around them. Both are literary wonders (O’Connor won the 1963 O. Henry Award for her offering) and enrich our lives and encourage self-examination and reflection.
O’Connor took her title from a quote by the Jesuit priest and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.”
I won’t reveal whether everything that rises in What’s Mine and Yours converges in the way de Chardin posited. To do so would spoil the reading of this novel at all sorts of levels. I will say that each of the characters struggle to remain true to themselves. Some move ever upward with greater consciousness. Some with greater love. Some combine the two. This is a book to be savored, contemplated, and shared.