My lioness is gently pressing her head against mine. Purring as she does. I can feel her hot breath on my cheek.
And I can sense something else behind me. Slowly, so slowly, I turn until I'm looking at my dragon. Her eyes are glowing amber almonds, slit pupils green lightning snaking through fire. My lioness's eyes are round and yellow as the sun, with warm brown pupils. She blinks at me, and I swear her mouth turns up in a smile.
I sit up and the lioness repositions herself, so she is lying under my arm, supporting me, keeping me up. Her purr rumbles through her, warming me. I tentatively rest my palm on her back, feeling her fur, simultaneously coarse and soft under my fingers.
The dragon is starting at me, and I stare back. She isn't smiling.
'I haven't seen you in a long time,' I say. Because I haven't, not even a shadow or a glimpse since my daddy died.
(Wing Jones by Katherine Webber. PP76 - 77.)
Wing Jones has always been the ‘kid sister’ – not particularly good at anything, not particularly good at making her own friends. That is OK, because Wing cannot imagine anybody more perfect than her brother Marcus. Effortlessly popular, Marcus has college scouts watching him for a sports scholarship, and looks forward to a bright future as a professional footballer. Wing might be bothered by Heather Parker’s bullying, much of which is of a racial nature, but at the start of the novel, Wing feels able to hide in Marcus’s shadow.
Then Marcus is involved in a drink driving incident. Two people are killed, and Marcus was behind the wheel. With Marcus in a coma, Wing not only has to face the bullies alone, for the first time in her life she is confronted with the idea that her brother may not be perfect. As a single parent family in Atlanta, the medical cover Wing’s mother receives with her job in a restaurant does not cover most of Marcus’s treatment. Wing’s mother and two Grannies fight to save their child, to save their house, but it is like running on a treadmill that gets increasingly faster.
One night, Wing puts on a pair of shoes and runs. As much as we want to know whether Marcus will recover, and what will happen to the family even if he does, the story is also about the purpose of running to Wing in the circumstances – is she running away from her problems or towards something better? How does the emotional baggage affect her ability to run? Without Marcus to hide behind, Wing learns some facts about herself for the first time.
I loved Wing’s voice. It was reflective, and mature for her age, but not in an unrealistic way. It really gave the sense of a young girl trying to figure out the world for herself. Wing and her brother have both been encouraged by their mother and grandmothers to aspire to college education – something which might not be taken for granted in their economic circumstances.
Like everybody I have spoken to about the novel, I loved Granny Dee and Granny Lao-Lao. Always at odds with one-another, they held the family together through previous tragedy, and they hold the family together now. At times in her life when Wing encounters adversity, she sees a lion and a dragon. I thought this was beautiful – it was as though her grandmothers’ protection extended to times when they were not present. Perhaps metaphoric of the things Wing has learnt from her Grandmothers, the things which keep her safe, it also read like magical-realism.
Much has been made of the fact Wing is mixed-race – of Ghanaian origin on her father’s side and Chinese origin on her mother’s. The book is set in the mid-90s, but racism is still deep-set in the American South. Dee and Lao-Lao represent the two halves of Wing’s heritage, and their presence helps Wing to feel secure with herself despite the racism she encounters. The novel did not sugar coat Wing’s life. As well as racism, she is constantly aware of the possibility of gun violence. It did not make those aspects the main story – the main story is based around Wing’s development and aspirations, which reminds us that people in every circumstance have a voice.
Although there are some difficult subjects, Wing’s dreams and the love between the characters allow us to read about gritty issues without this being a gritty read.
Page Count: 378