These Bones Are Not My Child
Toni Cade Bambara
Toni Cade Bambara sets These Bones are Not My Child against the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-1980 during which an unknown number of mostly black children but some adults went missing or were murdered. Bambara spent over a decade researching the topic while writing the book which was edited by Toni Morrison and published posthumously.
The book begins with Zala Spencer anxiously and angrily awaiting her child, twelve-year-old Sonny, to arrive home. She calls 911–who says the situation isn’t an emergency–but finally gets two officers to come to the house, though they are sure Sonny is off voluntarily. Zala visits the Missing Persons Youth Division but is similarly dismissed, with their questions suggesting that her status as a single mother with three jobs might be to blame and finally convincing her that Sonny is with his father, though she is having a difficult time tracking Spence, his father, a limo driver, down. When she finally hears that he will be at the Perimeter Mall JCPenney, she rushes to meet him, expecting to see Sonny with him. Only traveling with his paid customers, Zala breaks down.
Zala falls apart, unable to care for her younger children, Kofi and Kenti, and neglects basic chores, failing to buy light bulbs for example, so shifts her one remaining bulb from room to room. Kofi and Kenti try to adjust to their brother’s absence and their mother’s distance. Over the course of the book, Zala develops into an activist, developing the voice she didn’t have to advocate for Sonny when he first went missing.
Although there are beautiful passages, the book as a whole, as might be expected from the subject, is bleak, though I knew little about the Atlanta Child Murders and thought learning about them was valuable. The parents (mostly mothers) of the missing and murdered created a group to advocate for their children which forced the city to create a task force which was often blundering and ineffective. Because of long-standing inequalities in the city, though they were in the majority, black families had difficulty accessing the halls of power. And with Maynard Jackson as the first black mayor, many did not want the families to be vocal about their dissatisfaction since it might embarass or discredit his administration.
If the book had retained a narrow focus on Sonny’s disappearance and the investigation, it would have been an excellent novel. Unfortunately, it drifts and meanders addressing the plight of Vietnam veterans for example, a topic which is very worthy of discussion but dilutes the focus of this particular book. Additionally, the book devotes pages to minute details of a less important scene but passes over major incidents such as how two characters who were so estranged one was suing the other reconciled.
Such, I suppose, is the challenge of publishing a book posthumously. It’s impossible to know how the author would have edited or changed the book before publication.