McFadden, Bernice L. 1965-
McFADDEN, Bernice L. 1965-
Born September 26, 1965, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Robert (a UPS employee) and Vivian (an office clerk; maiden name, Hawkins) McFadden; children: R'yane Azsa. Ethnicity: "African-American." Education: Attended Laboratory Institute of Merchandising, Fordham University. Politics: Democrat.
Writer. Worked as fashion buyer for Bloomingdale's and Itokin; employed by Rockresorts; held various corporate jobs, 1991-97.
American Library Association Black Caucus Fiction Honor Award, 2000, for Sugar; shortlisted for Hurston Wright Fiction Award, 2002, for The Warmest December.
Sugar, Dutton (New York, NY), 2000.
The Warmest December, Dutton (New York, NY), 2001.
This Bitter Earth, Dutton (New York, NY), 2002.
Loving Donovan, Dutton (New York, NY), 2003
Camilla's Roses, Dutton (New York, NY), 2004.
Bernice L. McFadden has been praised by such writers as Toni Morrison and Terry McMillan as a fresh new voice in literature. In novels such as Sugar and its sequel, This Bitter Earth, as well as The Warmest December and Loving Donovan, McFadden explores themes from redemption and reunion to unrequited love, child abuse, alcoholism, and prostitution. Her writing is, according to a reviewer for Black Voices Online, "filled with … lyrical language, haunting imagery, and compelling voice."
Yet McFadden's voice might not have been heard had she not been laid off from her job in 1990. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, McFadden studied to become an international clothing buyer, a position she held for a time at Bloomingdale's before growing bored with the work. Going into the travel industry, she became unemployed in 1990 when the company she was working for was sold. By this time she had a daughter and few options. "I really felt like a statistic," McFadden told a contributor to USA Today Online. "A young, single, black mother with no job. I didn't like the way that felt." With six months severance pay in hand, she set about reading black authors such as Alice Walker, Morrison, Nella Larson, and Zora Neale Hurston, determined to turn her own pastime of short story writing into a profession. It took nine years and a succession of other jobs before McFadden published her first novel in 2000.
This debut novel, Sugar became a national best seller and confirmed McFadden's commitment to becoming a professional writer. Set in the fictional town of Bigelow, Arkansas, in about 1950, the novel traces the dual story of a woman named Sugar Lacey and her friend, Jude Pearl Taylor. Both women have been scarred by the past: Taylor's daughter was sexually assaulted and killed fifteen years before the beginning of the novel. She turned to the church for sustenance and has withdrawn socially since then. Sugar, who lost her own mother early, was brought up in a bordello and works as a prostitute. But when this beautiful young black woman moves in next door, Taylor is reminded of her own daughter and begins to come out of her shell. Over slices of sweet potato pie, the two form an unlikely bond. When word gets out in the small town that Sugar is a prostitute, Taylor goes against convention and sticks by her new friend in this novel of "redemption and forgiveness," as Booklist's Vanessa Bush described the tale. Bush further found this first novel to be "tragic and engaging."
Ann Burns and Emily J. Jones, writing in Library Journal, found Sugar to be a "touching first novel," while Ellen Flexman, writing in the same journal, called the book an "earthy slice of life in a small Southern town." Flexman also noted that McFadden managed to capture the "strengths and weaknesses" of a small town and the people who inhabit it. A contributor for Publishers Weekly had mixed praise for McFadden's tale. Noting the "surfeit of maudlin moments and some overwriting that is inadvertently funny," the same critic still felt the Sugar is an "ambitious first novel [that] will appeal to readers." And Bill Kent, reviewing the novel in the New York Times Online, concluded that McFadden reveals "the historical and sexual transgressions that link her long-suffering characters, who must learn to forgive themselves before they can be saved from their pasts."
In McFadden's second novel, The Warmest December, redemption and forgiveness are again at the center of things when Kenzie must deal with her past when visiting her dying father. "With an engaging vitality," wrote a critic for Kirkus Reviews "McFadden … explores a familiar subject-a daughter's troubled relationship with her abusive alcoholic father." Kenzie grew up in Brooklyn during the 1970s, helped her father, Hy-Lo, run a liquor store, and tried to keep her head down when he was drunk and beat her. Now as she visits her father at his bedside, herself a recovering alcoholic who has gone from a New York City executive to welfare recipient, Kenzie must learn to somehow try to understand her father's life in order to forgive him and move on with her own. The Kirkus Reviews contributor had praise for McFadden's "perfect emotional pitch and tone," while Cheryl Ferguson, writing in Black Issues Book Review, commended the "emotional depth, the aching poignancy that breathes life into McFadden's latest literary lifeline." Likewise, Booklist's Bush called McFadden's second effort a "sad and touching novel," and a critic for Publishers Weekly concluded that the book's "cathartic message of forgiveness and recovery will elicit tears."
McFadden returned to the protagonist of her first novel with the 2002 title, This Bitter Earth. This novel continues from the point where Sugar left off, leading the protagonist to surprising revelations about her family. Sugar decides to return to her hometown, Short Junction, Arkansas, to try to learn about her past. The Lacey sisters who raised her in their bordello are happy to see her return, and satisfy her curiosity about her parents. Among the dark secrets that have determined Sugar's life are a playboy filled with jealousy and a voodoo curse. Sugar learns that she is in fact the half-sister of Pearl Taylor's murdered daughter, Jude. When the sisters die, Sugar is the heir, with enough money to live comfortably, but nagging questions take her to St. Louis to an old friend. Here she finds that this woman's granddaughter is a heroin addict, and Sugar intervenes to save the girl, ultimately taking her back to Bigelow, Arkansas. A contributor for Publishers Weekly called the novel a "heartfelt but lackluster sequel," while Lynda Jones, writing in Black Issues Book Review, wrote that McFadden fashions an "ambitious and dramatic story that is part murder mystery, part love story and part her story." For a Kirkus Reviews critic, "Vivid style and strong characters add credibility to an equally melodramatic follow-up." And Bush, writing again in Booklist, called This Bitter Earth a "complex, vivid novel."
McFadden's "bittersweet fourth novel," as a reviewer for Publishers Weekly described it, is Loving Donovan. This novel traces a love affair through voices of the two people involved. Part one of the book is told from Campbell's point of view. Only eight years old and growing up in a Brooklyn housing project where she sees her mother's sadness over her father's continued infidelities, the young girl vows never have her heart broken by a man. At age fifteen she does just that, however, and becomes pregnant by a boy who then leaves her. Donovan, meanwhile, has something of a similar childhood, living with troubled parents as does Campbell, except that his life is permanently damaged when a pedophile boarder abuses him in his home. He grows up fearful of commitment—except to his work. He and Campbell meet in the final section of the novel. She has since become an artist, and though they have both survived their childhood, it is unclear whether they are healed enough to form a lasting relationship. Booklist's Bush felt that McFadden demonstrates with this novel the "limitations of love and fate."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Black Issues Book Review, March 2001, Cheryl Ferguson, review of The Warmest December, p. 20; March-April 2002, Lynda Jones, review of This Bitter Earth, pp. 32-33; January-February 2003, Robin Green-Cary, review of Loving Donovan, p. 33.
Booklist, November 15, 1999, Vanessa Bush, review of Sugar, p. 605; January 1, 2001, Vanessa Bush, review of The Warmest December, p. 919; January 1, 2002, Vanessa Bush, review of This Bitter Earth, p. 811; February 15, 2003, Vanessa Bush, review of Loving Donovan, p. 1044.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2000, review of The Warmest December, p. 1565; December 1, 2001, review of This Bitter Earth, p. 1683; November 15, 2002, review of Loving Donovan, p. 1648.
Library Journal, November 1, 1999, Ann Burns and Emily Joy Jones, review of Sugar, p. 103; December 1999, Ellen Flexman, review of Sugar, p. 187; November 1, 2000, Ann Burns and Emily Joy Jones, review of The Warmest December, p. 101.
Publishers Weekly, November 1, 1999, review of Sugar, p. 72; November 13, 2000, review of The Warmest December, p. 86; January 14, 2002, review of This Bitter Earth, p. 40; Jan 6, 2003, review of Loving Donovan, pp. 37-38.
African American Literature Book Club,http://www.reviews.aalbc.com/ (July 8, 2003), review of This Bitter Earth, and Loving Donovan.
Bernice L. McFadden Home Page,http://www.bernicemcfadden.com (July 8, 2003).
Black Voices Online,http://www.blackvoices.com/ (February 14, 2002), review of This Bitter Earth.
Curled up with a Good Book,http://www.curledup.com/ (July 8, 2003), review of Loving Donovan.
New York Times Online,http://query.nytimes.com/ (February 13, 2000), Bill Kent, review of Sugar.
PenguinPutnam Web site,http://www.penguinputnam.com/ (July 8, 2003).
USA Today Online,http://www.usatoday.com (June 6, 2001), "Bernice L. McFadden."*