Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1330
Mrs. Fabiyi's House
This book is about the begrudging friendship between the narrator, Seth Michelin, who lives in Dorchester area of Boston, and a schoolmate of his, Samona Gemini. They are both eleven years old and in fifth grade. Seth's family is from Haiti, and Samona's mother, who is raising the children by herself, is a poet and an undercover reporter for a disreputable magazine. After a short background about how they met two years earlier, the first of their adventures begins. It happened, as Seth's narration explains, ‘‘last Wednesday,’’ when Samona raced up to him on the sidewalk, insisting that he accompany her to Mrs. Fabiyi's house. Mrs. Fabiyi is a strange neighborhood lady from Nigeria who threw cold soup on them the previous Halloween. She has not be around for more than a week, and Samona says they should go and see if she is ill, although when pressed she explains that her real reason for wanting to go is because her cat has gone over there and she wants to make sure it is all right. To get Seth to go, she reminds him that Mrs. Fabiyi's house is a mystery to all of the children at school, and entering it would make them ‘‘the coolest kids in the fifth grade.’’
They take food to Mrs. Fabiyi, but at first they find her house empty. As they are walking down a dim, deserted corridor, a panel opens in the wall and the weird old woman comes out waving a piece of wood at them. Samona explains that they brought the food for her, in case she was sick, and Mrs. Fabiyi thinks this is funny. She was just away visiting her sister in Nigeria, she explains. She threw cold soup on them on Halloween as part of the Trick or Treat fun. She invites them in and they see her house decorated with African art and find the cat playing with Mrs. Fabiyi's cat. At the end of the second chapter, Samona stuns Seth by announcing that she is going to participate in the Little Miss Dorchester pageant.
Returning home from Mrs. Fabiyi's house, Seth encounters the strange sight of several of his aunts and uncles gathered in his parents' living room, with the lights dim and the curtains drawn. One aunt who never drinks is drinking, an uncle who always laughs is not laughing, and an aunt who always prays is praying. Seth feels panicky before they tell him that his grandmother's sister, Matant Margaret, has died. She is a distant relative who lived in a nursing home, and Seth hardly knew her. His older brother and sister, Jean-Claude and Chantal, go about their normal lives—especially Chantal, who talks on the phone with her boyfriend Jerome and is disappointed because she will have to miss a date with him because of the wake. Still, Seth's grandmother is so overcome with sorrow that she takes to her bed. Seth does not know what to make of all of this sorrow, and he does not know what a wake is, only that he will miss school later in the week to attend one.
The next day Samona tells Seth and his younger cousin Enrie that her brothers had been to a wake for her aunt Delia the year before. When Seth points out that Aunt Delia is still alive, she explains that it is because the wake was successful, that the mourners prayed so hard that Aunt Delia rose up from the dead. Seth does not accept her explanation, but the whole time at the wake he is alert, in case Matant Margaret should rise up, shaking everybody's hands.
At the wake, Seth observes his relatives who have come from all over the country and from Haiti and Canada, and their respect for Matant Margaret makes him feel sorrow for her death. The day after the funeral he goes to Samona' s house with food left over from the funeral and he observes the chaotic situation of her family. Returning home, he talks to his father about how strange the people in the Gemini household are, and his father explains that, ‘‘Different doesn't mean bad. Itjustmeans different.’’
The following Sunday Seth hears his brother and sister fighting again: Jean-Claude does not approve of her dating Jerome, especially since she sneaks out to see him without their parents' permission. She does not like the way her family casts her into the traditional female role, expecting her to do all of the cooking and cleaning and to grow up to be a nurse, when she has higher aspirations, and Jean-Claude thinks that Jerome put these ideas in her head. He leaves the house after saying, "I could kill Jerome for all of the trouble he's making for her,’’ and mentioning that he is going to see Reggie, a tough, gun-toting gang member. Seth cannot get away to follow Jean-Claude until he has taken his grandmother to church, but then he sneaks away and goes to the Baptist church where the Gemini family worships, to ask Samona's older brother Anthony for help in finding Reggie.
Anthony takes Seth and Samona in his car to where he thinks Reggie might be staying, and he orders the children to stay in the car while he goes in. While he is gone, though, they see Reggie walk by, so they run after him. Samona calls out his name, and Reggie turns on them with his gun drawn, but Anthony stops him before he shoots. Reggie tells them that Jean-Claude had been there but had already left for the 7-Eleven, where Jerome works.
They find Jean-Claude outside of the store, and he explains that he came to fight with Jerome but that he could not bring himself to do it. He still feels guilty, though, for having thought about it. When they go home, Chantal says that she is going to tell their parents that she is dating Jerome, and about her plans for the future.
The Beauty Contest
When Seth tells his family that Samona plans to enter the Little Miss Dorchester beauty pageant, he is surprised that they are supportive of her. Chantal is glad that someone with talent is going to be in the contest, while Jean-Claude doubts that the judges will be able to appreciate her beauty because she is black. The more people mention her attributes, the angrier Seth becomes, because he refuses to admit that she is either good-looking or talented.
To prepare for the competition, Samona practices with Bessie Armstrong, another girl in their class who is popular. She goes to Seth's house and has her hair and makeup done by his sister, mother and grandmother. She begins going over to Mrs. Fabiyi's house, but Seth cannot tell why. He begins to worry that she will lose her individuality if she changes too much in order to win the competition.
All of the members of both families attend the Little Miss Dorchester pageant. Samona creates a stir when she comes out on stage with a Nigerian dress and a colorful headdress. For the talent portion, she wears a worn old shirt and carries a basket on her head. When it is time to perform, though, she freezes with stage fright. In order to help her loosen up, Seth, who throughout the book acts embarrassed by Samona's behavior, stands in front of the stage and does the "funky chicken'' dance that Samona often did. Laughing at him eases her stage fright, and Samona gives a rendition of Sojourner Truth's famous ‘‘aren't I a woman?’’ speech. She wins second place and the approval of a teacher who had disliked her previously, and Seth, who has always grumbled about her antics, congratulates her. In response, she sticks out her tongue at him, comforting Seth that being in the contest has not changed her completely: ‘‘That's when I knew for sure that the old Samona was still there.’’