The first thing to know about this book is that it basically has no plot -- it's more a series of loosely connected vignettes that, when taken as whole, combine to give the reader an impression of African-American life in the 1920s in a particular neighborhood in Washington, D.C. So, while the book does open with a beautifully rendered chapter in which the 12-year-old protagonist's sister drowns in the Potomac river, that tragedy doesn't lead to the kind of linear story with clear resolution many readers might expect.
In that respect, the book is a bit of a failure -- but to my mind, it more than makes up for it by presenting a compelling roster of leading and supporting characters who bring alive the social history of pre-Depression black Washington. To be sure, the little girl's death hovers over the entire book, and the author does a great job of showing how the community rallies to support the family, but it's really about the community, not the tragedy itself. We get little peeks into everyday life, rituals, habits, social mores, and so forth. And of course, racism and it's economic and social consequences are woven throughout the book in a seamless manner.
Ultimately, it's a very personal book -- the author lost her child to an accident, and it's hard not to read the book as part of her grieving process. Also, her parents grew up in Georgetown during the era the book describes, and the book began as a story based on their reminisces, so in that sense it honors their history. It's definitely a book worth checking out if you have a connection to Washington, D.C. or just want a good fictional glimpse of African-American social history -- just don't expect much of a story.