Identity, Belonging, and Community

I chose to have you because I wanted something to love and something that would love me unconditionally in return.

Noah entitles Chapter 5 “The Second Girl,” and opens it with this quote from his mother. As the second daughter in her family, she has no status, and no sense of belonging. She also lacks basic material possessions and ample food. Patricia is, however, able to provide these basics for her son and goes a step further when she provides him with books. As she reads with Trevor and teaches him English, the two savor the moment together, and Trevor treasures this time as much as he values the books themselves. When Patricia chose to have Trevor, she created a life in which they both belonged.

Honey, I know what you’re going through,” she said. “At one point, I had to disown my family to go off and live my own life, too. I understand why you need to do the same.

Trevor is the first member of the family that his mother creates, and in Chapter 18 he is upset with her for becoming pregnant with Isaac. Unlike his birth, this pregnancy does not represent a new beginning for Patricia. Instead, it tethers her to her abusive husband, Abel. Patricia knows the situation is untenable, and she gives Trevor her blessing to leave, but she remains for the sake of the rest of the family she created. This blessing is something she never received from her own family. While they accepted that she left, they never encouraged her to do so, which was why Patricia had to “disown” them in order to move forward. Like Trevor, she will eventually return home to visit, but she knows that she cannot live there.

The Struggle for Self-Sufficiency and Survival

Oh, you’re a Xhosa,” he said. “That explains it. Climbing into strange men’s cars. Disgusting woman.

The Zulu minibus driver in Chapter 1 presents a direct threat to Patricia’s survival. Being a woman in South Africa can turn something as straightforward as finding a ride home from church into a life-or-death situation, so it is likely that this is not the first time that she has encountered physical danger. Once the driver establishes the tribal barrier between them, it is clear that he no longer sees Patricia and Trevor as fellow humans.

Patricia is a fighter, but she also knows when to flee. Her quick wittedness allows her to ascertain that this man is a bigger danger to her and her children than any injuries they might sustain during their escape, and her calmness allows her to find the right time to push her son out the door.

I’m not laughing because it’s funny. I’m laughing out of relief. I thought you’d been beaten up. I thought this was blood. I’m laughing because it’s only mulberry juice.

Along with her faith, Patricia’s sense of humor is one of her many survival mechanisms. When Trevor comes home from the mulberry tree covered in juice in Chapter 9, she immediately jumps to the worst conclusion. After all, it is not uncommon for kids to get beat up and bloodied in their neighborhood. Once she realizes that Trevor is only in emotional pain, Patricia is able to move on quickly and encourage Trevor to do likewise. When Abel returns, Patricia tells Trevor not to tell him what happened. She knows that Abel’s survival mechanism is violence.

Lady, are you not listening to me? This is my mother’s life. This is her life. Take the money. Take all of it. I don’t care.

In Chapter 18, when Abel shoots Patricia in the head, the reader worries along with Trevor that this is the one time that his mother’s survival skills will not help her. He is terrified for her survival, and once the nurse tells him that they will transfer her to a state hospital because she has no insurance, Trevor insists that he will take on the responsibility for her medical bills. At this moment, Trevor cares nothing for his future or his financial stability. The only thing he can hope for is for his mother to live, no matter the cost.

The Possession of Courage and Perseverance

Learn from your past and be better because of your past,” she would say, “but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold on to it. Don’t be bitter.

In Chapter 5 we learn that Patricia’s parents divorced when she was young, and at age 9 she left her mother’s home to live with her father. Instead of taking her in, he sent her to live in a hut with her aunt and 14 cousins. When Trevor is young, Patricia shares snippets of information with him about what it was like to grow up in that village, fighting over scraps of food and trying to avoid being raped by strange men. She shares these stories with him so that Trevor will know more about perseverance. It is Patricia’s greatest hope that Trevor will create his own future, just as she did. Given her past, she knows that bitterness will only hold him back and that he will need courage to move ahead.

Because” she would say, “even if he never leaves the ghetto, he will know that the ghetto is not the world. If that is all I accomplish, I’ve done enough.

Noah ends Chapter 5 with these words from his mother, who is explaining to her relatives why she bothers to teach a Black child about white customs. Noah points out that when she became pregnant with him, she had no way of knowing if apartheid would ever end. Nonetheless, she persevered in teaching him about the things that awaited him should he ever become free.

Though Patricia’s money is scarce, she takes Trevor ice skating and to drive-in movies. Patricia thinks it is ridiculous that Black people never go to these places and refuses to believe that she and her son should not go either. Their outings to the white suburbs embolden Trevor and grant him the courage to dream.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

Noah includes this quote from Nelson Mandela in Chapter 17. An enormous Tsonga man, whom Trevor refers to as the Hulk, has just joined the other men in jail. Trevor has been there long enough to see new guys come in and try to appear threatening to avoid trouble, but every one of them is terrified of this large newcomer. Trevor hears the cops asking the man questions in Zulu, which the Hulk does not understand. Drawing on his courage, Trevor speaks to the man in his Tsonga tongue. He feared this man to be a murderer, but his courage allows him to discover that the man is in fact very gentle and has been arrested for a nonviolent offense. Language allows Trevor to reveal information and connect with the man in a way that would be impossible if he only spoke English.