Study Guide

American History

by Judith Ortiz Cofer

American History Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Skinny Bones is a teenage Puerto Rican girl struggling to adapt to life in a multifamily apartment building in Paterson, New Jersey. She lives in a former Jewish neighborhood that is now inhabited mostly by Puerto Ricans and African Americans. As a loner, Skinny Bones is attracted to marginalized individuals like herself. She finds her soulmate in Eugene, a shy teenager who has recently come from south Georgia. Because of his marked southern accent he is soon dubbed “the Hick,” and he becomes the school’s newest object of ridicule, joining Skinny Bones as an outcast. Skinny Bones falls in love with Eugene, and they soon become inseparable, despite their cultural differences. Eugene, a bright student, tutors Skinny Bones in several subjects. Although Skinny Bones is a good student, she is not admitted to advanced courses because English is not her first language.

The story’s climax occurs when Skinny Bones accepts Eugene’s invitation to a tutorial session at his home, immediately across from her own apartment building. She accepts gladly because she has been wanting to meet Eugene’s family. After having watched his kitchen from her own apartment, Skinny Bones is particularly interested in Eugene’s mother, “a red-headed tall woman.” Their study date, however, is almost interrupted by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Skinny Bones must convince her grieving mother to allow her to go to Eugene’s house instead of going to church to pray for the slain president.

At Eugene’s house, Skinny Bones encounters another unexpected problem. When Eugene’s mother answers her knock at the door, she regards Skinny Bones as one of those “people” who live across the street and immediately dismisses her. The mother also forbids her from studying with Eugene because he is smart and does not need any help.

Frustrated in what appears to be her first adolescent love, Skinny Bones returns home and tries to “feel the right thing for our dead president.” Eventually she cries, but realizes that the tears coming up from a deep source inside are strictly for her.