Originally published in 1997 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Where You Belong was chosen by the National Book Foundation as a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. The New York Public Library also named the book to its list of Best Books for the Teen Age.
A Forbidden Friendship
It’s October 11, 1963, in the Bronx, New York. Thirteen-year-old Fiona, her mother, and three siblings have just been evicted from their apartment. Now the family must move in with Aunt Maggie and her six kids. Better to go to Daddy’s place, Fiona’s brother tells her. Better to risk getting beaten than to go someplace you don’t belong.
The beating does come, and Fiona runs away in terror. By the time she realizes how far she’s gone, she is in an all-black neighborhood – a place her Irish-American parents talk about with scorn. She’s alone, hungry, with no choices left.
Along the way, Fiona is reunited with Yolanda Baker, an old classmate. They were never able to be real friends at school – a friendship between a black girl and a white girl was rare in the Bronx. But today is going to be different. Two girls who don’t feel they belong anywhere will find a special place to belong – with each other. Can their friendship survive? The streets of the Bronx offer a path for a powerful journey of self-discovery.
McGuigan limns the territory between divergent inner and outer landscapes and how individuals learn a tremulous courage to trust themselves and their experiences, despite the physical and psychological violence of the adult world. With sensitivity, empathy, and insight, McGuigan shows us that the young have the character and emotional acumen to recreate themselves and, in doing so, recreate history.
In this deeply moving novel, McGuigan demonstrates a wonderful talent for creating emotionally complex characters, believable situations, and closely observed, realistic settings. That some of the plot situations remain unresolved reinforces the feeling of real life, which is one of the book’s singular strengths. As for Fiona, she is an unforgettable character with a first-person voice that is marvelous in its understated artfulness and compelling in its emotional authenticity.
The urban setting is nearly a character in itself. . . . McGuigan’s characters are fully realized and emotionally complex, and they do not lend themselves easily to stereotyping or standard bearing. Any social commentary is given from the perspective of a young adolescent who has already received too many hard knocks from an unkind world, and who is seriously questioning where her loyalties lie.
An insightful glimpse into the ravages wrought in an alcoholic family and the social pressures of the time. The characters are so well drawn and the story so engaging, it’s obvious why this was a National Book Award finalist. Where You Belong will stay with you long after you close the cover.
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Read An Excerpt From Where You Belong
Mama had convinced herself – and us – that they would never go through with it. But the eviction notice said the marshal would arrive at 8:00, and he did. At first Mama tried stopping him with lies. “Mr. Levine said he’ll wait for the rent. He told me himself. I spoke to him yesterday.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the marshal told her, but he wasn’t. He put his badge back into the vest of his dark suit and started his work for the day – October 11, 1963.
Mama’s still at him, but Cait knows better. She’s busy packing boxes, stuffing everything she can into the cartons Owen got from the grocery store.
This was our first apartment on our own, 1974 Mapes Avenue, just a little ways from Tremont Avenue, three rooms for the five of us. You can walk to the Bronx Zoo from here. It’s the only place my mother could afford on her own. This neighborhood used to be all Irish and Jewish. Now there are a lot of Puerto Ricans, even some colored. Mama says they’re ruining the neighborhoods, and the Jews are moving to Long Island. On Bryant Avenue, south of here, where my father lives, there are even more colored and Puerto Ricans. My parents get really upset about spics and niggers. That’s what they call them. They act as if these people are taking something away from us. But really there’s nothing much to take. Whatever it is my parents think we had, it’s gone now. We hardly even look at each other anymore.
Cait’s fifteen; Owen, nine. I’m thirteen, as tall as Cait and built like a pole. She calls me Carrothead because of my hair. Liam’s seventeen, broad-shouldered, as tall as Daddy, sullen. He misses the old neighborhood-Bathgate Avenue, up near 187th Street-where he could sing a cappella in the hall with Big Al and Guido. It was safe there, almost all Italian. Now he leaves his dirty clothes for Cait to pick up and sings Clovers songs in a falsetto voice as he struts through the apartment, getting ready to go out. By the time he leaves, he’s his make-believe self. Tough.
But I know what’s underneath. I’ve watched him lean over the turntable and place the needle on the song he wants to hear, slip his hands palms down beneath his thighs, and rock against the armchair’s deadened springs, back and forth and back and forth to the rhythm he needs so badly. When he closes his eyes, all the feelings he’s hidden come out in the way he sings.
Before we left Daddy, Mama sometimes had us sing while we waited for him to come home. We never knew how drunk he’d be when he got in or what he’d do. Maybe he’d be sleepy; that’s what everybody hoped. But mostly he’d have things to say, angry things that he’d saved up from days and days of not speaking at all or even looking at anyone. Then the slightest thing could trigger it-Liam answering back or Mama nagging, even a lightbulb deciding to blow. It didn’t take much and then he’d go into a rage: lamps flying tables crashing, and always, always Mama getting a beating. It was like a kind of roulette, except you couldn’t decide not to play. You were stuck in the game whether you liked it or not.
To keep our minds off the fear, Mama would get us to sing together. There were nights when the songs worked even for Daddy, times when he would keep the door from slamming and stagger over to our circle. No interruptions. No hello. Only the voice we’d forgotten was missing.
But now Cait is packing our stuff and Liam’s cramming his 45s back into their dust jackets. He’s already dressed, and has filled a gym bag with clothes. He picks up his skinny comb and slides it into this back pocket, tucks a can of Barbasol into the corner of the bag. He’s got the last of our toothpaste, too. He stuffs his record case with a many 45s as it can hold and tucks it between the handles of the gym bag. Then he slips another batch of records under his arm, picks up the gym bag with his other hand, and moves toward the apartment door. I figure he’s leaving, but he stops at the closet first, the narrow one by the door, and reaches inside on the highest shelf for something else he wants. I can’t tell what it is because it’s in a plain brown bag, except I can see that it’s small, no bigger than his fist really. He sees me watching him and gives me his toughest look. “Don’t you say nothin’,” he says, then leaves.
I go into the bedroom and find the uniformed moving man standing before the dresser I share with Cait, gathering in his broad black hands all the little perfume bottles and jewelry cases we’ve collected. The clothes I forgot to put away last night are still in the corner of the room, so I pick them up. I don’t want those hands on my petticoat, don’t want him to see how frayed my panties are.
After he leaves, I go to the spot where the dresser was, my clothes rolled into a ball against my chest. The man has placed the things from our dresser into a shopping bag, and the jewelry cases have come open; our chains and beads lie tangled among the bottles of perfume. One of the bottles has broken and the smell of Midnight Passion in the room makes what’s happening all at once even more ridiculous.
The flowers in the linoleum haven’t grayed here. Balls of dust are woven around things we’ve lost, forgotten: an earring, a pen, a spool of thread. A fifty-cent piece is indented into the floor. I get it out and take it to Mama. She’s in the kitchen, searching the bottom of her pocketbook for loose change. Four dollars, two quarters, some nickels and a dime lie here and there on the table before Cait. “Mama,” I say.
“Not now, Fiona. For Christ’s sake, not now.”
The marshal’s heavy steps pound through the apartment, echoing through the empty rooms. He hesitates in the kitchen doorway, uncertain whether to come in. Maybe he thinks there’s something private about this family circle, some line he hasn’t already crossed. “Is someone coming to pick up your things?”
“I’m calling a storage company,” Mama answers.
“Better have someone stay downstairs until they get here,” he says, and walks away.
“Fiona, you better go down,” Mama says wearily.
The morning light is thin, hardly warm at all. The men have placed the boxes and the furniture on the sidewalk, and the two Puerto Rican kids from across the street are playing on the couch.
“Get off there, Carlos,” I yell and they dive off the back of the chair and scramble away. The furniture on the sidewalk makes me feel like a stranger. The mattresses and the cushions and the skinny-legged tables look alien. I don’t want to belong to these things anymore. I can’t wait for someone to take them away.
I sit at the top of the stoop, as far away from the stuff as I can get. Now and then someone passes by someone about to have a day like any other – looks from the furniture to me, my legs held tightly together, my arms folded across my chest. I try not to see beyond my knees. I take the coin from the little purse I keep in my shoulder bag. The bag used to be Cait’s, but now it’s mine; sometimes I get lucky and find loose change at the bottom. But there’s nothing today, only the coin from under the dresser. I move it between my fingers, glad I haven’t given it to Mama. I like the feel of it, the hardness, the idea that no one can take it away.
Liam comes over from across the street, rests his bag on the arm of a chair. I drop my coin into my bag. “Come on. We’ll go home,” he says.
“You mean to Daddy?”
“I can’t. Mama… what will Mama say?”
“I’m going back,” he says, shaking the last cigarette out of a pack. “If you wanna come, I’ll take you.” He lights up, cupping the tip of the cigarette from the wind. He doesn’t seem the least bit concerned that Mama might come out at any moment and find him smoking.
I’m afraid to go with him, yet the idea of getting out of here feels so good. “Will Daddy be home?” I ask.
“He’s probably at the gas station. We won’t see him till he gets in. Who knows when that will be.”
“What if he’s drunk?”
“He won’t go for you.” He takes a hard drag on the cigarette and waves the idea away as if it’s no big deal. “I’m the one who’ll get it.”
It hurts when he says this, because we all know it, that Liam gets most of the beatings. He gets it almost as much as Mama used to, but that’s because he steps in between them all the time, to stop him. Daddy never hits me, only Mama, Liam, and Owen, even Cait sometimes. I don’t know why. Maybe he likes to have someone watching. When it’s happening, I feel like I’m not really there, not even really in my own skin. I’m just a pair of eyes, watching.
“I can’t leave,” I tell him, and concentrate on my socks. They’re Liam’s, too big for me.
“Then don’t.” Liam gathers his stuff and leaves me there. He gets halfway down the block before I make up my mind to go with him.
We walk, saying nothing. I could be any kid walking with her big brother – a kid with a room, a dog, a phone number, things to do that day. But I know I’ll never be a kid like that. No matter how many times we start over, the ache in our faces gives us away. I’m no one. There’s no more to it than that. All I know is that it feels better with Liam, better than the smell of Midnight Passion. Better than Mama scrounging for dimes. Better than the sofa in the street.