Beginning with Cannonballs
In Knoxville, Tennessee, in the mid-South in 1951, Hanna and Gail grow up as near twins in a middle class household. That is, they imagine themselves as twins, although Gail is white and Hanna is African American, the daughter of the family maid. She and her mother share a bed in the basement, only going home on weekends where Hanna can see her adored father and brother. Gail calmly accepts that she and Hanna go to different schools—that’s just how things are. When Hanna’s mother takes her North, Gail’s mother is secretly relieved.
Beginning with Cannonballs follows Hanna and Gail’s reconnection through their marriages and personal struggles, with Gail constantly reaching out to the prickly Hanna. For her part, Gail romanticizes their childhood and often can’t see the ways racism shapes Hanna’s experience and options. Yet Gail’s caring presence helps Hanna’s deep grief over a lost son, PJ. Searching for PJ takes the two women on a road trip in which they re-weave the ties of their childhood when they were girls making cannonballs in a swimming pool.
One of the most compelling plot lines involves Hanna’s time in Haiti in the era of Papa Doc, and her tense, often toxic relationship with Pierre. Decades squeezed into a relatively short novel require a good deal of narration, and we often are told about, rather than experience the women’s struggles. This also creates an episodic plot that blunts the impact of dramatic scenes. However, the reader can watch two intelligent women working through the barriers of white privilege, racism and their own demons to see through the eyes of their oldest friend.