Black, White, Other: The Search for Nina Armstrong by Joan Steinau Lester follows fifteen year old Nina as she struggles to understand and accept issues of race, family, and self-identity in present day California. As a biracial child (her mother is white and her father is black), Nina has always known that she is different from kids who have an obvious heritage, but when her parents divorce and a gas explosion rocks a nearby neighborhood, her perception of race changes forever.
The novel is written mainly in Nina’s point of view, and the writing is exactly as mature and technically sound as you’d expect it to be from a fifteen year old kid. It’s authentic, sure, but that, to me, is the book’s main flaw – Nina rambles on and on about things that don’t matter to the plot or for character development. For most of the book, the pace is sluggish and lackluster. Each scene feels disjointed from the rest, with no true transition from scene to scene or chapter to chapter. What’s more, each character is one-dimensional. A novel like this is supposed to be rife with racial tension, but I don’t feel it because the main characters lack the clear cut motivation that would make me empathize with them.
When a black neighborhood in Oakland burns after a gas explosion, Nina’s father watches in dismay, and complains frequently to his daughter about the abuse of African Americans. Meanwhile, Nina’s white friends suddenly begin to turn their noses up at the “ghetto” blacks they see in person or on television, despite knowing Nina herself is mixed. And Nina’s black friends pressure her to choose a race to identify with and stick with it. All of the characters have obviously been polarized by the disaster, but the fact that everyone changes their ideologies so quickly seems like an overly convenient plot device. The explosion is mentioned only in passing; the disaster is never shown firsthand, and I felt removed from both the explosion itself and the effects it has on the local community.
The most interesting character in the novel is Sarah, the fictionalized version of Nina’s great-great-great-grandmother who stars in her father’s progressing manuscript. Chapters of the manuscript are peppered in with Nina’s narrative and help the novel gain momentum, but Black, White, Other ends predictably and without a true sense of closure.
Sydnee is a freshman at Wayne State University pursuing a degree in Journalism. She is obsessed with hunky heroes, explosions, melodrama, and magic—all things that make a frequent appearance in her stories. Her blog is http://syd-dreams.blogspot.com. Find her on Figment at http://figment.com/users/62-Sydnee-Thompson.