Thursday, March 11, 2010

Throwback Thursday: Come A Stranger

Come a Stranger by Cynthia Voigt 1986

Rating: 4.5/5

IQ "Miz Hunter smiled then, the way old people often did, as if she was remembering something far away, as if she'd like to take Mina into her memory and share it together, almost as if Mina already was a part of whatever she was looking back at." pg.3

Come a Stranger is about Mina Smiths, who is t-rou-ble. The story takes place in Maryland and we follow Mina's journey through adolescence and the early stages of puberty and all its awkwardness (from twelve to fifteen). Mina is a talented, graceful ballet dancer and she wins a dance scholarship for a prestigious dance camp (where she is the only Black girl there). Mina learns a lot at this camp and has a wonderful time. However, upon her return to dance camp the next summer, people have changed. Or at least Mina has. Racism seems more noticeable to her and she is told that she is "maturing too quickly to dance" (back cover). Mina than meets someone who inspires her to look at herself and the world, differently.

I first read an excerpt of this book in Pirouette: Ballet Stories by Harriet Castor (an anthology of excerpts from autobiographies of dancers as well as stories about dance). I remembered it made an impression on me since it was about a black ballet dancer (I wasn't sure we existed) and I was a black ballet dancer. I don't recall ever reading the whole book (I might have, I really don't remember) but it was a delight to go back and read the book and as I read that same excerpt, I was reminded of my childhood and how much I love/hate ballet. I love how books bring back memories :) So obviously, the parts about ballet were my favorites. I sympathized with Mina when she was the only black girl at dance camp (been there, done that but all year round) and how she couldn't figure out how to act around the other girls. She also handled essentially being told that she was a failure quite well. By well, I mean realistically. She didn't get over it right away, she actually moped and she believed the headmistress too (I was afraid she would get all self-righteous, which would be wonderful but not completely authentic for a fourteen year old).

An issue I had with Come a Stranger was how mature Mina seemed. I think the story started when Mina was twelve, but she always sounded exceedingly wise for someone her age. I like Mina a lot, she picks her battles wisely and she doesn't sit back and take anything, she gives it back as best as she can. Today, Mina wouldn't really be considered t-rou-ble, but in the '80s (I think that's when the book is set), she does things that can be seen as rebellious and frowned upon. She's outspoken and I think that was still a big no-no at the time. However, Mina is incredibly laid-back and devoid of all the young angst that usually accompanies middle school and high school, which was both refreshing and odd. She was very confident which I applaud, but I would have liked to see her in a bit more human light (she seemed to perfect).

Another thing I really like about Come a Stranger is that it brings up first crushes, but not with people close in age. In Mina's case, it's a first crush on an older man. I enjoyed reading about her crush and how she handled it. I totally understood why she was crushing on the man. It was the one thing where Mina wasn't perfect, she fancied herself in a love with a man that she should have been avoiding (he was married with kids). Black and white friendships are brought up as well along with first experiences of subtle racism (Mina never experiences outright racism, but she starts to realize that it is beneath the surface). The only other problem I had with the novel was all the subplots thrown in, they weren't balanced very well and I didn't get a full grasp of all that was going on.

Come a Stranger is filled with exquisite writing that accurately describes human emotions and trials (like the IQ). Mina is a fantastic role model for girls although she does seem to transcend past the awkward adolescent stage (mentally, not physically) and I'm glad she's t-rou-ble! 6th grade and up.

Disclosure: Received as a gift for the holidays. Thanks Wendy!

PS This is the 5th book in the Tillerman saga which I haven't read. I'm undecided if I will read the rest (I do want to read more if Mina's involved, does anyone know if she reappears?)


  1. Mina shows up in A Solitary Blue and Seventeen against the Dealer, although she isn't the main character in them. She's talked about some in Sons from Afar, but isn't actually present (off at college). It's a great series, but most of the other books are about the Tillerman family, who Mina befriends.

  2. I remember Mina in A Solitary Blue, but she doesn't show up until the end, when the main character, Jeff, meets her through the Tillermans. There are a couple of other PoC characters in the novel, which if I remember correctly makes some subtle and interesting points about race relations, but there aren't any PoC main characters.

  3. It's been ages since I read these Tillman books, and I never read them all. I remember Mina was a favorite character of him, so she must have been around in Dicey's Song, because I didn't read A Solitary Blue. I can't remember if I read Come a Stranger though...

  4. You might also like Another Way to Dance by Martha Southgate, which is also about an African-American ballet student, but in NYC in the 1990's.

    I think Mina's biggest appearance other than Come A Stranger is in Dicey's Song, which is my favorite book in the Tillerman series.

  5. @Anon-Thanks for clearing that up! I don't really have an interest in following the series but I do want to hear more about Mina so perhaps I will.

    @Jessie-I'll check out A Solitary Blue then. Although I don't know the order of the series. Does that book come before or after Come A Stranger?

    @Jenny-I think Dicey's Song is the first book in the series, so I should start there?

    @ivanova-I LOVED that book! I read it years ago and it was so good. I'm going to review it this month :) Ok so I'll read Dicey's Song first, then a Solitary Blue. Unless that's not the right order. I know Come a Stranger is the 5th book in the series...

  6. The series order:
    Dicey's Song
    A Solitary Blue
    The Runner
    Come a Stranger
    Sons from Afar
    Seventeen Against the Dealer

    However, they aren't all chronological (A Solitary Blue is set when Mina and the others are in high school, so is later in time than Come a Stranger, and The Runner takes place about 15 years before Homecoming), so you could read them out of order and not be totally lost. But I think reading Dicey's Song before A Solitary Blue would make a little more sense since it sets up the characters more.

  7. @Anon-Thanks! BTW why so annonymous? I like to know people's names :) Anyway, so I think I'll start with Dicey's Song, then Solitary Blue, then the Runner, Homecoming, etc. I really just want to learn more about Mina but since the whole series is being recommend to me, I'll try them all.

  8. For what it's worth, Mina and Jeff (protagonist of A Solitary Blue) both show up as major secondary characters in Dicey's Song. I've always thought they were such strong people they demanded their own books.

    FWIW2, Homecoming starts when Dicey, 13, realizes her mother isn't coming back to the car where she and her three younger sibs are waiting to resume the trip to see the only relative who ever wrote to their mother. Part of the backstory is that Dicey grew up fighting because their mother and her younger sister are different, and their father absent.

    FWIW3, Homecoming and Dicey's Song are mostly from Dicey's viewpoint. The Runner is from the point of view of a character who is only mentioned in those two books. Sons from Afar and Seventeen Against the Dealer are largely from the viewpoint of the next-oldest Tillerman kid.

    They're all good books. On a technical note, if you've ever thought about writing a series, they'd be worth reading just to see how Voigt works in enough background to understand things without info dumps.

  9. Technical comment: the author's name is spelled Voigt.


I love to hear from you!! Thank you for sharing :) And don't be Anon, I try to always reply back and I like to know who I'm replying to ;)