Thirteen-year-old Rayann Wood narrates the poignant tale of her dysfunctional family and the redeeming power of friendship in the novel Cookie and Me, by Mary Jane Ryals (Kitsune Books, Sept, 2010). Sassy yet poetic, southern yet universal, Rayann’s voice rings out as true and wise and unforgettable as Scout’s in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Set in Tallahassee in the turbulent ’60s, the novel leads us once again through those days of bus boycotts, segregated swimming pools, and speeches by charismatic black ministers.
The author’s love of poetry and the natural world is apparent as she describes leaves with “fifty-eight shades of green looking tender enough to eat,” a sun “warm as butter,” and the way the “early crickets bree’d.” Yet other than the setting and a familiarity with horses, very little else about the novel appears to be autobiographical. The novel is Ryals’ first, though she is well known in the Tallahassee literary scene as the Big Bend Poet Laureate. In 2008, she published a collection of poems, The Moving Waters (Kitsune Books). Ryals teaches business communications at FSU and has also written a related textbook, Getting into the Intercultural Groove.
As Cookie and Me opens, Rayann is obsessed with bones, associating the fragility of bodies with her mother’s delicate mental condition: “Just the thought that under all our finery, clothes, manners, and smiles, under epidermis, tissue, and blood, as my sixth grade biology teacher called them, we’re just bones. Easy to break, easy to crack. Cracking up. Like Mama.” In a burst of anger toward her alcoholic father and his lowlife friends, who want to lock her mother away in the mental hospital in Chattahoochee, Rayann burns the word “bones” into the dining room table with a cigarette butt. Ironically, when she lets her mother bear the blame for the table’s defacement, she pushes her mother one step closer toward a breakdown and this feared confinement. But like most children, Rayann fears the punishment sure to come if she tells the truth even more.
One afternoon Rayann follows Cookie, the only colored girl in her class, down a dirt road. Thus begins Rayann’s awakening to the prejudice surrounding her. She is attracted by this girl who belts out gospel and Marvin Gaye with equal enthusiasm, accompanied by her honking geese, Margot and Waldo. Cookie, the fastest runner in their class, projects a confidence Rayann admires. Rayann learns white boys shoved Cookie off the school bus because “they didn’t want no niggers riding on their bus.” Though Rayann realizes what the boys did was wrong, it isn’t something she can say out loud. Through most of the novel, she lacks the courage to acknowledge Cookie publicly, partly because her friends and family would disown her, and also because any public demonstration of their friendship could be dangerous for both of them.
Rayann shares her hiding place in the woods with her new friend, where she is setting up housekeeping “just in case.” She isn’t sure in case of what. The what comes soon enough when Rayann overhears her father’s drunken friend call her “ripe” and he searches the upstairs for her. In her innocence, Rayann doesn’t truly understand his intentions, but her instincts lead her to hide until she can escape to her special place in the woods. When she needs food and support, she turns to Cookie and her Aunt Jessie, the Woods’ long-time maid.
As Rayann enters Cookie’s life in a more intimate way, she realizes “Colored people were a mystery” because whites had such limited interaction with them. In time, she discovers commonalities. She and Cookie both bite their nails. They are curious about what it will be like to be kissed for the first time. And they both love the same pop songs on the radio. Another bond grows between them when Rayann develops a crush on Cookie’s older brother, Ivory Jones, who works in the hospital where Rayann’s father is an administrator.
The split in Rayann’s family intensifies as her father fools around with “hoochie coo” women. He plans to stash Rayann in a boarding school and her mother in a mental hospital while he lives well off her mother’s money. Racial tensions also escalate with the summer heat. Cookie and Rayann walk together openly through each other’s neighborhoods, finding danger and prejudice everywhere. After a day full of confronting hatred, the girls finally stand “face to face, their masks washed off.” One can hardly read that line and not be reminded of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask.”
Set against key events of the Civil Rights movement, Cookie and Me is a story about color, “the hues that don’t have names…The royal blue of late afternoon,(and) the color of forgiveness.” It is a novel dreaming of great grandchildren the “shades of ebony, mahogany and pistachio,” great grandchildren Rayann hopes she and Cookie will someday share stories about while they rock on a porch as old women.
More than a story about race, the novel demonstrates the power of love and friendship. Ivory Jones risks his job to help Rayann keep her mother out of Chattahoochee, and Rayann takes great risks to help Cookie when she is injured as a bystander during a protest.
This novel sings like a poem, a love song to the North Florida Ryals grew up in, a poem that took ten years, off and on, to write. At the novel’s end, Miss Jessie tells Rayann she’s “done been (her) pearl all along,” affirming her love. Likewise, after reading this novel, one is left feeling it has been Ryals’ pearl all along.