Novelist Kim McLarin had me hooked way before this little gem of a quote appeared in the middle of chapter four of her third book, Jump at the Sun. But I still whispered an enthusiastic “Preach!” (as we used to say in church down South) when I read those words. I recalled thinking the same thing almost verbatim six years ago when my oldest daughter was three, during the height of the Candyland craze at our house. The idea of feeling obligated to play another life-sucking round of that board game really did make me crazy; I would have much rather been writing a short story or reading a grown-up book. I could have used a copy of Jump at the Sun back then to affirm my sanity and my ambivalence about the mixed blessing of being a so-called stay-at-home mom.
Where McLarin had me hooked was with the opening lines of prologue to Jump at the Sun:
He was not the first man to slither up behind her in a field of whispered white and throw her down upon a cotton sack. But he was the teacher’s son.
Set in a sharecropping field in 1941 Mississippi, the prologue recounts an act of conception involving a black woman-child we later learn is main character Grace Jefferson’s grandmother, Royal Rose. Clearly, this is not just another I-am-ambivalent-if-not-outright-resentful-about-being-a-stay-at-home-mom tome. McLarin takes this decidedly new-millennium discontent and weaves through it a complicated family history, a continuous backstory unfolding during the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights Movement, and the early post-Movement era.
These multi-generational forces are the lens through which Grace, after being denied tenure at a prestigious university, views her new occupation, stay-at-home-motherhood. The drudgery and tediousness of being with her family 24/7 leave Grace feeling “like a claustrophobic in a mining shaft.” She is also trapped between the conflicting legacy of her mother Mattie’s ï¿½ber-sacrifice for her children, on the one hand, and her grandmother Royal Rose’s abandonment of her children for her own sake, on the other. Jump at the Sun is a portrait of Grace’s struggle in context, at a juncture where personal ambition, race, class, gender, the legacy of slavery, and expectations of loved ones intersect — or rather, collide. The result is a smart, satisfying read.
McLarin skillfully infuses Grace’s story with history and sociological observations in a way that does not create lulls or resort to speechifying. When moving through time and space to tell Mattie and Royal Rose’s stories, McLarin writes with such rich physical and emotional detail that these accounts stand on their own as more than mere prefaces to Grace’s story.
For the title of this novel about mothers and daughters and expectations, McLarin turned to a literary foremother — novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, whose own mother “. . . exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at de sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.” In Jump at the Sun, Grace has jumped and landed on the American Dream — she is a black woman who Has it All. But happiness eludes her, and she chides herself for this dissatisfaction:
Really, what was my problem anyway? House too big? Bills too paid? Kids too healthy and well fed? I was a sociologist, a kind of societal shrink, and as capable as anyone of casting a skeptical eye over the specter of middle-class American malaise. My life was good, objectively speaking. Enviable even, exceedingly blessed, and I damn well should have been able to appreciate it. Outside my door more than three million black American children were living in poverty, and that was poverty as defined by the government. . . . In some cities more than fifty percent of black men were unemployed. Fewer than fifty percent of black Americans owned their homes, compared to three-quarters of our white friends and neighbors. I, on the other hand, had a chemist husband with a new job in corporate America, a new house, and two healthy, beautiful children who had never missed a meal. Boo hoo hoo.
McLarin bestows upon Grace a dry wit that keeps her assessment of her life from dissolving into navel-gazing or self-pity, neither of which is Grace’s style. When, for example, Grace complains about her husband — a rare breed of man who talks all the time and actually wants to listen to his wife — she muses,
. . . Eddie would say something and the irritation would just crawl up my back. I would think: Can’t you just leave me alone? Why are you talking to me, anyway? And then I’d think, Oh. Because that’s what couples do, you lunatic. Get hold of yourself.
For wanting her husband and her kids essentially to leave her alone, Grace considers herself not maternal enough, not womanly. She theorizes that the ability to adore men is like a muscle “best developed in early childhood” — a muscle that has atrophied in Grace, who grew up essentially fatherless. Ultimately, however, Grace’s focus shifts from self-criticism to self-preservation, and she contemplates what society tells us is unthinkable for a mother: walking away.
McLarin tells Grace’s story deftly and without apology for what may be considered an unflattering portrayal of modern motherhood. The writing is raw, clever, and brutally honest, like Grace herself as the narrator. Whether Grace is a sympathetic character or not is beside the point. She is a fully human character: flawed, pulled in a million different directions, and very much in love with her children. Which is as good a summation of modern motherhood as any.
McLarin writes, it seems, blessedly free of the opposing cultural agendas related to motherhood, work, and family prevalent in popular media. Jump at the Sun transcends these debates. Its complexity reminds us that while mothering may be mulled over in the public sphere and have public implications, it remains an intensely personal undertaking.