“Don’t tell me what I am,” she said. “I get to say what I am.”
Ghosts manifest via various entities. They exist in haunted, roaming room to room, seeking aimless shelter until their needs in their former world jibe with their spectral form.
Sometimes those haunted dwellings consist not of brick and mortar, but of blood and DNA. In Mia McKenzie’s The Summer We Got Free, a family exorcises ghosts struggling to keep their existence within the souls and walls of their unfortunate hosts: The Delaney Family.
Ava Delaney and her family, at one time respected and loved in their West Philadelphia neighborhood, experience seventeen years of ostracization after a violent event shatters them to the core. Led by a cult-like church pastor, The Delaneys feel trapped inside their home.
However, a peculiar woman appears at their door, serving as an exorcist, purging and bringing life into a family whose breath hungers for cleansing. Her presence stirs a desire to break from a toxic norm, threatening their family’s overall health. Ava, once a “wild child” and a budding artist, rediscovers qualities making her special.
But, as she, along with her family, realize, struggles, once procured, prove difficult to toss.
Award-winning author, McKenzie, creator of the blog, BlackGirlDangerous.org, presents characters with backstories, tragic and hopeful, engaging readers to grasp the concept of living one’s truth.
- Regina, the matriarch, smarter than others believe, she blurs the line of being the novel’s Ophelia and Cassandra. Others hold her gently, due to her rants, her “Saturdays” and invisible gardens, but she’s wiser than she appears.
- George, Sr., the patriarch, grappling with his own demons and secrets, taking his anger and sorrow on his family, but making sure he keeps his loyalty to the community tight.
- Sarah, unsure of her potential, but wanting more, she wavers between finding her way and staying loyal. But, even loyalty comes at a limiting price.
- Ava, brilliant and precocious, she’s a free spirit in a community, fearful of those walking their own path.
- Geo (George Jr.) beloved son, too good for the world around them.
- Paul, Ava’s husband, striving for a good life for his wife, but he clutches to ghosts of his own, unlike his in-laws, as he holds to a marriage trudging along.
- Helena, Paul’s sister, “The Exorcist”, an eccentric curiosity to those around her, she lights fires The Delaney desperately needed to purge.
Along, with a supporting cast of characters, including a controlling pastor in need of handling his own ghosts, McKenzie’s discusses various themes, like compassion, living one’s truth, jealousy, sadness, and resentment, with people gripping you after story’s end.
Her writing, while slow and burning, provides critique and introspection on how societal norms and perceptions trap us. They manifest as emotional ghosts (e.g. remorse, shame, jealousy) via themes, including, but not limited to, queerness, homophobia, black culture, and the controlling nature of religion upon the naive. Her writing’s descriptive, atmospheric, and strong. You’re reading a ghost story, mixed with societal insight, and with each page turn, you sense her words creep along your spine.
Furthermore, she writes with a wisdom beyond her years, evoking Morrison and Hurston with intertwining magical realism and love letters to their favorite regions. With Hurston, you had Florida backwaters. With McKenzie, it’s Philadelphia, more than setting, but a character in itself. As a native, I’d say she hit the mark.
Though a slow burn, you never lose focus. You’re willing to follow, even if you need a good cry afterwards.
I wish I could speak more of this book’s praises. But, in the interest of time, I’ll live my thoughts with a high recommendation. Nab this book. Discuss its themes. Cry. Laugh. But, if anything, as this book address, live your own truth.
Verdict: 5/5 Trips to The Philadelphia Museum of Art