My Name is Leon

A brother chosen.

A brother left behind.

And a family where you’d

least expect to find one.

My Name is Leon is a heartbreaking story of love, identity and learning to overcome unbearable loss. Of the fierce bond between siblings. And how- just when we least expect it – we manage to find our way home.

cover

I had a good feeling about this book, and had been saving it for a while. I gobbled it up in a day and a half. Leon is nine in 1980 England, he is mixed race, his Mum has baby Jake with another guy and he is white. This does not stand between them in any way, and Leon soon finds himself having to change, feed and look after Jake for longer and longer periods of time as his Mum descends into post natal depression or maybe something else. Leon doesn’t mind too much. He loves his brother and he is good at it, and only goes to Tina Downstairs for help when there is no food and no money left.

Kit De Waal is astounding at getting into Leon’s head, the way he has learned to tell Social Workers what they want to hear, and not believe what any of them say. He distracts himself with Action Man and swiping fifty pence pieces when things get too hard. He is a good, lost child and your heart really breaks for him.

Leon and Jake go to live with Maureen, an older lady who has been fostering forever. I LOVED Maureen. She is no nonsense but wise and loving, larger than life and is always cooking up fabulous grub and endless snacks for the boys. She asks Leon about Jake’s routine and what he does and doesn’t like so she doesn’t get it wrong. She gets out a pad and pencil and writes down two pages of notes on what Leon says ❤

Leon licks the sauce off his fingers and looks around. Maureen’s house smells of sweets and toast and when she stands near the kitchen window with the sun behind her, her fuzzy red hairstyle looks like a flaming halo. She’s got arms like a boxer and a massive belly like Father Christmas.

Maureen is amazing. The boys and the reader trust her implicitly.

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Each chapter was headed by a teeny cute illustration which were a joy and totally instagram-able. 

Something devastating happens, Jake is adopted. Maureen believes because he is white. Poor Leon trashes his room and starts grinding his teeth in his sleep, and can’t cope very well. There’s a heartbreaking but wonderful chapter where Maureen has to wake him from a nightmare and she sits him down and ‘has words’ about how she knows a thing or two about children.

‘Answer me this. How many children have I fostered over the years? I know you know the answer because I saw you ear-wigging the other day when I was talking to the neighbours.’

Turns out its twenty-two. And including her own children, grandchildren and Leon it’s thirty. She tells him how she knows he will be alright and that he will see his brother again. It might not be until they are adults, but Leon will see Jake again. ‘He hasn’t gone forever.’

Despite this safe environment there are still a lot of trials for Leon and even Maureen. His Mum sometimes doesn’t turn up to see him, he doesn’t hear from her for months. He makes friends with some older men at nearby allotments when he acquires a bike, and for a long time it’s not clear what their motives are and it left me a bit uneasy.

But there is a whole sub-plot about police brutality against black men which I wasn’t aware of, in England in the 80’s. And Tufty, who has an allotment is key to this, and teaching Leon about Black Power, and racism and dignity.

This is a brilliant first novel, so real and genuine and tender. Beautiful stuff, and well worth a read. Book 32 of 2016.

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“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” The Help

USA cover

(by Kathryn Stockett)

“Enter a vanished world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver…

There’s Aibileen, raising her seventeenth white child and nursing the hurt caused by her own son’s tragic death; Minny, whose cooking is nearly as sassy as her tongue; and white Miss Skeeter, home from college, who wants to know why her beloved maid has disappeared.”

You guys! I finished this book today, I adored it and you must read it. I couldn’t wait to share. I’m glad I didn’t see the film first, though seeing the trailer prompted me to read the book, as it’s been sitting on my shelf for a year or so. There’s more to that blurb, but I don’t think it does the book justice. The blurb, and the cover, ironic enough as that is, put me off this book until now. The book is told alternately from the 3 perspectives of these three women. We begin with Aibileen, the 53-year-old maid who now works for Miss Leefolt. Miss Leefolt is 23, and has minimum interest in Mae Mobley, her two year old with “big brown eyes and honey colour curls. The bald spot in the back of her hair kinda throw things off. She get the same wrinkle between her eyebrows when she worried, like her mama. They kind a favour except Mae Mobley so fat. She ain’t gonna be no beauty queen. I think it bother Miss Leefolt, but Mae Mobley my special baby.” Aibileen is kindly and likeable and trustworthy. She is brilliant at making Mae Mobley feel better in any situation whether she is colicky or being cruelly ignored by her mama. You get right into Aibileen and others’ southern accents too. They are quite fun. Oh Law.

Minny is Aibileen’s best friend. 17 years younger. She is mouthy and hilarious. She’s been fired by many white women because she can’t hold her tongue. Aibileen conspires to get Minny a job with a mysterious new lady who has moved into the outskirts of town. As long as Miss Hilly doesn’t find out… Minny has five young  children and a husband who beats her.

The deep-seated racism and segregation between the maids and the women they work for is underlying, demeaning and painful, embarrassing, frustrating…

Skeeter is back from college. She wants to be a writer. All her friends dropped out of college to marry, her mother is tired of trying to get her up the aisle. She’s six-foot tall and her hair isn’t as flat as her mother would like. She starts to talk in a little more depth to her friend Elizabeth Leefolt’s maid Aibileen when she gets a housekeeping column in the local newspaper but realises that she doesn’t know anything about housekeeping and cleaning. It’s trying to think of a controversial topic that she feels passionate about to impress Elaine Stein at Harper and Row publishers, that she dares to think about writing the stories of what it’s like to be a black maid working for white women in Jackson, Mississippi. Skeeter has always been kinder to the maids and respectful. She misses her own maid Constantine, whom no one seems to want to talk about. Where has she gone? Why did the letters stop so suddenly? Perhaps when she starts secretly conducting the vital interviews with Aibileen -they have to be SO careful… she will also get some answers of her own.

Skeeter is part of the Bridge Club and many other organisations with the awful young elite wives of Jackson. Miss Hilly is the ringleader and the ultimate baddie of this book.

One kind of incidental subplot  involves a sad revelation and a LOT of blood and I swear I was millimeters from fainting, all alone on my Belfast room. I had to push the book away, cover my eyes, rock slightly.

It’s the throwaway lines in this book that will break your heart. I felt so grateful to Kathryn Stockett for allowing these things to happen in her story. I don’t want to spoil too much of it for you.  The women are inspirational and it’s so satisfying when they begin to work together. So many awful things happen but there is such a bubble of hope.

I haven’t seen the movie and I’m torn between REALLY wanting to and knowing I will be bawling my eyes out. And what if that incident is in it? Has anyone seen the film?

I’m glad I broke my book famine for this one. It will stay with me for a long time, I think you should read it. I agree wholeheartedly with Marian Keyes “Daring, vitally important and very courageous. I loved and admired The Help. Fantastic.”