Something Better than Home by Leona Beasley is a coming of age story that follows its main character, Onnie Armstrong a young black girl growing up in the south during the 1970s, in a place called Eleven Light City. When most little girls dream of being a princess or a queen, Onnie wants to be a king—no one makes kings wear frilly outfits. Onnie’s an obedient little kid. She speaks when spoken to and addresses her elders with respect, Yes, ma’am. Thank you, sir. She adheres to the rules of her home and her Mama is the boss.
Her life becomes complicated when she starts kindergarten and it’s not looking like it’s going to get easier. Her best friend tells her that she’s adopted. Onnie confronts her parents and learns that it’s true. Afterschool kissing games with another little girl, Karla turns into self-discovery. She knows she is different—she likes girls. Her Mama is on to her and keeps a close watch. No closed doors when Karla is around.
As Onnie grows we meet a greater cast of characters, her close friends, rivals, and bullies. She’s involved in a schoolyard fight. Another hard and fast rule in her family, one this time instilled by her Daddy, she better not come home a loser. She knows she’s on her own and she learns to keep her secrets. We follow Onnie through her adolescence, we watch her grow and become comfortable in her skin, adopt her own style. She wants to live her truth, she knows she is gay, but doesn’t want to face her Mama. She relies on her friendships and outside influences, like an eye-opening trip to San Francisco, the epicenter of gay life, that helps give her courage and guide her. We watch her make good decisions and some bad ones too. We see her heartbreak and feel her heart mending and growing stronger.
When Onnie graduates high school and goes away to college we cry because we’ve seen her grow up. Our tears are only shared with her Mama. Onnie knows what she wants, and we’ve watched her go for it and be the person she wants to be. She’ll hide no more. She’s Onnie and she’s gay, self-sufficient, and in charge of her destiny.
The story featured a host of supporting characters, from parents, friends of her parents, her best friend, her crush, her second crush, teachers, bullies, and neighborhood rivals. Each character is written with as much care as Beasley gives her main character, Onnie, whose perspective the book is written from.
I loved Onnie. She reminded me of a younger version of myself back when I thought I knew it all and had a comeback for everything. Though Onnie had better sense than I did. She’s the perfect blend of sassy, smart-mouthed, tell it like it is kind of kid. She’s got a good head on her shoulders and knows the difference between right and wrong. I loved that she let that inner fire, her spirit, and individuality, guide the courageousness she needed to be her own person. I especially loved the nicknames that Onnie’s deemed for members of her neighborhood. She refers to her Mama’s friends as the Old Folk’s Mafia.
The Writing Style
The book is written in first-person present tense. The story opens with the character in her present day. She’s reminiscing. She’s grateful for what she has and knows it was hard-won. We’re invited to join her as she remembers the pivotal moments in her life.
Each chapter is a point in time and an insight into Onnie’s life set along the timeline of her childhood through graduating high school, with a brief look into her happily ever after.
The story’s pace is perfect, it’s not quick but doesn’t drag. Beasley takes time to tell her stories and each is marked with humor, sarcasm, and vivid scene-setting that make you feel like you’re there.
“Simpson Road was a special street—it had two Tasty Dog drive-ins. The smell of chili and Vidalia onions saturated the air three blocks before, three blocks after, and all of the blocks in between. For black folks, the two Tasty Dogs outshined the much larger Varsity drive-on that was near Georgia Tech, most notably because the Varsity only welcomed black folks as busboys and maids, not customers.”
Beasley gives us a glimpse into what life was like for a young black girl in the 1970s south. She did such an amazing job creating a home, a family, neighborhood, and community that I felt as though I was part of it. I grew to be protective of Onnie. I felt her successes and her heartbreaks. I felt as though I grew up with her, maybe a best friend, or part of her inner circle. Beasley also gives us insight into what it might have felt like as a black person living in the south when whites-only establishments and Jim Crow era laws were still practiced. Beasley gives us all of this with the right amount of humor, heartache, and hope.
Trigger warnings for a rape scene and instances of child abuse. The instances of child-abuse were commonplace during this era for some families, which makes it a truthful and accurate portrayal of this family and their background, but might make people uncomfortable.
If you love coming of age stories where you follow a character through their trials and tribulations, this is a great read. Beasley gives us an intimate glimpse into her main character’s life that you feel like you want to follow her long after the story is over. You wish that you could check in on Onnie from time to time, just to make sure she’s okay.
Beasley is a superb storyteller and does a masterful job setting the scene and painting a world that she drops us into. It’s a great read with insight into the life of a 1970’s young black girl growing up, learning her truth, accepting it, and living it.
Excerpt from Something Better than Home by Leona Beasley
Other teachers came in to clear out the mass of students. Miss Pearlman gave me a little wink when she pulled my arm to help me up. One teacher called the custodian to get Shirlene out of the garbage can after teacher after teacher had tried unsuccessfully. Neither Shirlene nor I were expelled due to some miracle or blood oath Miss Pearlman secured with Principal Bradley. Perhaps the victory went beyond me.
From that day on I never fought at Hills Elementary and Daddy never beat me for being beat up. Loraine bragged to whoever would listen that I was her best friend. Karla and I secretly stole lip-locked kisses when we got a chance. The school embraced me as some type of dragon slayer—a hero of all things. But Principle Bradley says things very differently. “Just another badass from Dixie Hills,” she said under her breath when I passed her in the school’s foyer.
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Bits and Bobs
- ISBN number: 9780998917801
- Publisher: Eleven Light City Press
- Leona Beasley Online
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