The Summer We Got Free by Mia McKenzie opens in 1976 in West Philadelphia at the Delaney family home. It’s a neglected dwelling that mirrors the emotional and spiritual state of the five-member family. Thirty-year-old Ava (the protagonist) resides with her husband (Paul), older sister (Sarah), and parents (Regina and George). George had moved his wife and small children from the Deep South with the hope of a better life, but a violent event wiped the semblance of happiness from their lives, causing the Delaney’s to live under a dark cloud for nearly twenty years.
Ava is introduced as an indifferent woman, one who doesn’t concern herself in the interests or desires of her husband or family, one who may not capture the interest of readers. However, McKenzie “flips Ava’s script” upon the introduction of Helena. When Ava answers the doorbell and plants a kiss on a complete stranger’s lips, I knew this might be a story with a few turns and surprises.
The book unfolds in a slow but nourishing manner. McKenzie takes her time with characters and backstory. The latter is woven throughout the narrative, which goes back and forth between the 1950s and 1970s to unveil the lives of the family members and their close-knit community, in addition to Ava’s internal demise. Each family member is badly bruised, but the reasons behind Ava’s flat affect— and her childhood to adolescent changes— may take you by surprise.
The author didn’t incorporate external events/influences pivotal to the African American experience and U.S. history during the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s. Even if these histories were not integrated in the lives of the Delaney family, they could have been briefly included in the context of their community. After all, they resided in a major U.S. city. However, I believe The Summer We Got Free can (and does) resonate with Black audiences because the characters’ inner and interpersonal struggles are ever-present across Black communities.
While the story features Black lesbian love, it’s a bit overshadowed by the complexity of this novel for two main reasons. One, the two women share an innate attraction; it wasn’t organically fostered. Second, the primary queer story is elucidated via a male character that’s plagued by internalized homophobia, which is a core theme.
The prose is verbose; however, McKenzie weaves moments of nice descriptions to paint good settings, characters, and some entertaining scenes. I especially enjoyed the first scene featuring George’s mother (Sarah Haley). On the other hand, The Summer We Got Free includes sprinklings of magical realism (and has been deemed part ghost story); the scene in which the characters reveal “visits” from apparitions felt out of place to me. If this scene were deleted, the story would essentially remain the same.
I’ve omitted some important characters because the novel is layered with subplots I cannot mention for the sake of brevity. Plus, I will not give away everything this novel has to offer. Instead, the next time you’re in the mood for a richly thoughtful and emotional story, be sure to get a copy of (or download) The Summer We Got Free.
Reviewed by: Lauren Cherelle
Lauren Cherelle uses her time and talents to traverse imaginary and professional worlds. She recently penned her sophomore novel, The Dawn of Nia (Resolute Publishing, 2016). Outside of reading and writing, she enjoys new adventures with her partner of fourteen years. You can find Lauren online at Twitter, lcherelle.com, and Goodreads.