Toni Kay Cole is one of those rare writers who is unafraid to take risks in her work, whether in form, voice or content. In many of her stories, cultures clash. Her story “Water Mommies” centers on a horrible event – the accidental death of two young boys in a neighbor’s pool. But instead of lapsing into melodrama, Cole uses this story to show moments of great beauty even in times of great suffering.
But Cole is never didactic. Her writing, while always rich and layered and meaningful, can also be full of joy and humor. Her character Maddie is a feisty, spunky, unapologetically smart Chicago girl. Reminiscent of Toni Cade Bambara’s bright and observant narrators, Maddie experiences the ups and downs of adolescent friendships and a troubled relationship with her kind-but-largely absent father. Maddie’s ongoing battles with her pregnant mother Theresa over her hair, her clothes, her determinedly “ungirly” behaviors and attitudes are a funny and complex exploration of race, gender, and class.
Cole has created a world of God-fearing mothers and fearless daughters; but also women who want more than what’s been offered to them, women who know what they want, woman who can articulate their frustrations and their desires with equal clarity. Jamey, the narrator of “Early Sunday Morning,” is having an affair with her church deacon. “When we’re around one another everything is sweet,” she says, “we use the word all the time, and it matters none that we both probably taste like rock salt in between God’s teeth. But who can understand this unordinary love? No God, Jesus, mother, seething congregation or prime and proper wife because this kind of juice is tainted, but healing just the same.”
Cole’s prose is jazzy, lyrical, quotable—the kind of writing where you mean to underline only your very favorite lines and phrases but then find you’ve underlined everything—but the plots and themes come out of the writer’s intimate understanding of her characters, her love for the people who live and breath in the world she’s created. I look forward to making space for Ms. Cole’s books on my shelf.