Jenniemae & James is a smart and troubling memoir of bigotry and generosity, darkness and light, intellectual virtuosity and untapped talent, revelation and silence. The story of a family, it also records the routine and crushing injustice of life in segregated America, and honors the love African American women gave the white children and families in their care.
Housekeeper Jenniemae Harrington was, "an underestimated, under-appreciated, extremely overweight woman who was very religious, dirt poor, and illiterate;" but it is Jenniemae's intelligence, grit, faith and love that hold the Newman family together as ambition, depression, illness, narcissism, resentment, infidelity, secrecy, or just small daily disasters threaten to destroy it:
"On any given day separation or divorce was a real possibility... The day-to-day 'getting along' that I saw in the relationships of my friends' parents never seemed to be a part of my own family's ritual. There were no sweet greetings at the front door at the end of a long day, there was no holding hands walking down the street. ...For my parents, life was serious business... the slightest event could and would set them offbuying new shoes, burning the breakfast toast, the paper boy leaving a torn newspaper..."
Jenniemae's liveliness and forthright good nature bring out the best in Newman's relentlessly self-absorbed, competitive and demanding father, James. Mathematical genius and historian, friend of Einstein and peace activist, James Newman waged open war on his own marriage and family through a succession of cruelly obvious affairs and estrangements with his wife. James enjoys and respects Jennimae's raw intelligence, her intuitive grasp of numbers and the qualities she possesses that are lacking in his own character: humility, serenity, trustworthiness and generous affection. Especially charming is the mathematician's playful interest in Jenniemae's ability to pick winning combinations in her daily games of "policy":
"'I don't see how you win all the time. How is it possible?'
'I got the dreams. It's all in the dreams. Simple thing. It's the Lord's way of givin' to me.'
'You dream the numbers?'
'Yes indeed I do. The numbers are inside my dreams.'
'There's a number hidden in a dream?'
'Always, Mister James. It's the Lord's gift and it floats on through the thin space-air and comes right into my dreams. And my guess is that those numbers are in other people's dreams, too, but they just don't be listenin' to them.'"
Brooke Newman argues that Jenniemae and her father clicked because, "Both of them liked order, routine, regularity; both were intense." But her narrative repeatedly illustrates that it was Jenniemae's ability to bend and her capacity to tolerate the emotional disorder of the Newman household that sustained her friendship with James. The author's mother Ruth, James Newman's fourth wife, was remote, beautiful, troubled, ambitious, often depressed or afflicted by night-terrors and migraine headaches. This "tense, worried, frustrated and incomplete woman" as her daughter describes her, never develops a real friendship with the sympathetic Jenniemae, yet befriends and encourages many of her husband's lovers with whom she shared her home.
I would have liked to know more about the author's almost invisible brother, her mother's life and relationships outside the family, and about the author herself (she suggests that she struggled with compulsions and eating disorders as a child, but doesn't elaborate, and says almost nothing about her adolescence or life in college). I would also have liked to know more about Jenniemae's life outside the Newman family with her daughter, Lila. But by celebrating her father's friendship with Jenniemae, Brooke Newman celebrates perhaps the one human success in her wreck of a family and some of her father's most generous moments: When Jenniemae is raped by a white bus driver, her concerned father insists on driving her to and from work each day; when her daughter suffers serious burns, he helps by taking them to the hospital. And when he is invited to deliver the commencement address at Georgetown University, James insists that Jenniemae attend with his family, providing Jenniemae the odd and lovely experience of sitting in front of rows and rows of the people behind whom she has been forced to sit behind on the bus for many, many years.
This review was originally published in May 2010, and has been updated for the April 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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