is a 2009 historical fiction novel by Tanita S. Davis. Branching off from the near-present day, the novel is framed in the narration of Octavia, the granddaughter of Ms. Marey Lee Boylen, or “Mare.” The second narrator, Mare, a former member of the 6888th African American Battalion of the Women’s Army Corps, recounts her time serving in World War II when even the U.S. Army enforced racial segregation. Reluctantly, Octavia and her sister, Tali, join their grandmother on a road trip to their family’s reunion while on summer vacation. As Mare imparts her story to her granddaughters, they stop their sibling bantering, inspired by her experience as an African American soldier during such a contentious moment at the intersection of racial politics and world war.
The novel begins at the onset of Octavia and Tali’s summer vacation. Their parents irritate them when they announce that they are sending them off with their grandmother. Mare is not a typical grandmother by any means: she wears push-up bras, stilettos, and wigs, smokes profusely, and drives a bright red car. Grumpy before they even get in the car, Tali and Octavia quarrel over trivial matters. When Tali puts her headphones over her ears, Mare strikes a bargain: if Tali doesn’t disengage from her family, Mare will refrain from smoking for the entire ride.
As the three drive, Mare reminisces about her early life as a black girl in Bay Slough, Alabama. She lived on a farm initially purchased by her grandfather, along with her younger sister, Feen, her mother, and her mother’s intimidating boyfriend, Toby. Although Mare was the main parental figure for her sister, Feen was sent to live in Philadelphia with an aunt after a dispute with Toby. Afterward, Mare considered finding work as a house cleaner but, ultimately, decided to run away from home to join the Women’s Army Corps. The minimum age to enroll was twenty-one; Mare falsified her age to get in. Despite a few pitfalls, Mare quickly adjusted to the strange norms and traditions of the Army. She befriended another new member of the WAC Peaches Carter.
The women trained rigorously for deployment for several months and then, were sent to England. Because the Army did not permit mixed-race battalions, Mare and Peaches were grouped into the 6888th Central Postal Battalion and assigned to dig through huge warehouses of packages and letters, sorting them for delivery to soldiers on the front lines. The first African American battalion to serve outside of the U.S., they stationed first in Birmingham, followed by Rouen, France, and finally Paris. Their move to Paris came after the official end of the war. There, they lived in relative luxury at the Hotel Bohy-Lafayette and saw a parade honoring Joan of Arc.
Throughout her deployment, Mare saved up to buy a home for herself and Feen at the time of her return. She sent many letters to her mother in Alabama, enclosing cash to help her out with basic needs. She received only one letter from her mother to announce her marriage.
By the end of the novel, Tali and Octavia share a newfound appreciation for their grandmother. They reach the family reunion and look forward to spending part of their summer vacation with extended family about whom they hardly knew anything before the car ride.
Davis’s story about Mare incorporates many historical facts about the 6888th Battalion, bringing to light an important moment in African American history and the important struggles that African American women went through to validate their right to serve. The hard work of the Battalion in boosting soldier morale no doubt contributed to the United States’ victory, even as they fought a second war against America’s prejudice of themselves.