In Sidewalk Dancing, Letitia Moffitt does a skillful job of portraying the precarious balancing act of belonging—to a family, to a community, to a country—in which her characters find themselves.
The McGee family of three stands out, each individual with their own brand of forced or constructed distance from those around them. This novel-in-stories weaves through the lives of Grace and George McGee, ultimately focusing on their daughter Miranda, but not without richly characterizing the odd couple this pair makes: George the idealist dreamer whose plans seem to only rarely come to fruition, and Grace the hardworking, recently immigrated, grin-and-bear-it pragmatist.
Though each parent functions solidly within these roles, the reader sees their nuanced backgrounds especially in the first two stories, “Knives” and “Model Homes.” There are also glimpses into these characters’ complexities sprinkled throughout the others, which follow more closely Miranda McGee from childhood to adulthood.
Two of the stories I found most engaging, “Only Say True” and “Codicils,” focus specifically on Miranda’s relationship with one parent. In “Only Say True,” an adult Miranda reflects on her childhood memories and relationship with her mother. The prose is simple, matter-of-fact, opening with “The way I see it, I have Amy Tan to blame, at least in part, for the relationship I have with my mother.” Now grown, Miranda finds that her mother suddenly wants a whole new relationship with her, that her mother seems frightened Miranda will become or is becoming a small copy of herself. Even in the narrator’s exasperation, her recollections of her mother’s quirks are kind, humorous but without judgment.
“When I was a child…she finished her day by taking the chairs from the dining table and propping them against all the doors in the house, until the day my father, George, saw it and laughed at her—as if a little chair would stop someone who wanted in from the outside. He loved it, kidded her about it for a whole month. Shall we move the sofa in front of the garage?”
Though she recalls her father laughing at her mother for these small acts, Miranda does not join in the teasing; we learn that in childhood she mused about the real usefulness of her mother’s tactics, but we also see the child Miranda participating in her mother’s safety rituals and being influenced by her mother’s fear. The ripple effect of mother-daughter relationships continues in “Puzzles and Presents,” when Grace’s complicated relationship with her own mother affects her reaction to gifts the woman, only briefly appearing, gives to Miranda during her visit.
In “Codicils,” George is not only a teasing father and husband, but a character affected by the death of his own mother, acting differently within his small family because of that death. When he reaches out, in this story and throughout the novel, he can be bumbling and ineffectual, but he keeps trying—sharing updated wills with Miranda, trying to talk about anything as she, now a teenager, rather quintessentially rolls her eyes and shuts him out. In this story, he’s the one who worries and his wife the one who teases when he becomes convinced “that he himself [is] likely to drop dead at any minute.”
As the novel moves forward—into “Incognito,” “Living Dead,” and “The Revolution to Free Beatrice”—readers see more and more of Miranda as an adult, with a life away from and distinctly different than those of her parents. She searches for identity in a different city; obscures the identity she already has; believes, in one flu-induced haze, she may be dead; and plots to help her younger cousin carve out a unique individuality for herself outside of the confines of maternal protection.
These stories shift perspective back and forth from Grace to George to Miranda, and in the final, title story, we see all three of them, a sliver of time and memory from each in their family’s home. Though each character has at times been hard on the others, we see that they are all also critical of themselves, of their own flaws, misunderstandings, and missteps.
Letitia Moffitt’s collection is a skillfully crafted, enjoyable read that navigates the universal but quirky idiosyncrasies of family through this multi-city, multi-perspective, multi-cultural novel. The stories are filled with themes of identity and belonging (or the lack thereof). There’s a complex picture here of conflicting desires to fit in and stand out not only within a family, but within a community and a country. As the novel progresses, readers see another layer to this issue: choice, and how acts of choosing to stay in a group, community, or family unit can affect those issues of belonging and identity.