Critical Overview

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Packer’s short story collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, was published to a chorus of praise from reviewers. The reviewer for Publishers Weekly comments that “the clear-voiced humanity of Packer’s characters, mostly black teenage girls, resonates unforgettably through the eight stories of this accomplished debut collection.” The reviewer concludes, in a comment that might be applied also to “Brownies”: “These stories never end neatly or easily. Packer knows how to keep the tone provocative and tense at the close of each tale, doing justice to the complexity and dignity of the characters and their difficult choices.”

Jean Thompson in the New York Times Book Review praises Packer’s skill in characterization; she also brings attention to the youthfulness of the characters and the fact that in some cases they lack self-knowledge. “The very young characters in “Brownies” [have not] developed much insight into matters of race, adulthood or a religion that reduces its teachings to acronyms—Satan, for example, is ‘Serpent Always Tempting and Noisome.’”

Thompson’s conclusion, however, is entirely positive regarding the collection as a whole:

Young writers, naturally enough, write about young characters. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is not really limited by this. Instead, there is a sense of a talented writer testing and pushing at those limits, ringing as many changes as possible within her fictional world. It is a world already populated by clamoring, sorrowing, eminently knowable people, and with the promise of more to come.

David Wiegand, in San Francisco Chronicle, also has fulsome praise for Packer’s stories: “Packer doesn’t merely tell stories brilliantly, but she also packs each one with a right-between-the-eyes moral about issues of race and black identity.” However, Wiegand argues that in some stories Packer’s didacticism, her desire to teach a moral lesson, “seems slightly forced.” He cites as an example the incident in “Brownies,” in which the learning disabled white girls innocently repeat the racial insult only because they have heard it somewhere themselves. “It’s Packer’s way of reminding us, unnecessarily, that prejudice is learned,” writes Wiegand.

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