Cashay: Sally Cassady Lyon

Margaret McMullan’s new novel for young readers is about a girl named Cashay Thomas (“not black and not white, either”) who is nearly 14 and wishes she weren’t: “When you’re fourteen everybody starts to notice you,” she says. All Cashay wants to do is “press the pause button and then wait for the rest of [her] to catch up.” She and her 12-year-old sister, Sashay, are different from the other girls in their neighborhood, and Cashay can name why: “because we got each other.” With their mother, a life in Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project is bearable for now. Togetherness is all they have. Pressing the pause button would guarantee a little peace in a scary world, but, of course, there’s no such thing–and soon enough, an adult life comes hard and fast for Cashay. One afternoon while the sisters walk home from school, trying to avoid the local thugs loitering near the playground, shots ring through the crowded street. The girls lie down on the sidewalk, “the way [they’ve] been taught,” and the sequence that follows echoes the riddling gunfire. “Dang,” I say. “Oh, no.” she says. Sashay looks real scared. “What?” “I swallowed my gum.” “Somebody shot Big Buddha,” I say. “That gum will clog up my insides,” Sashay says. “What are you talking about?” “Don’t be mad,” Sashay says. Seconds later, “a line of blood the color of nail polish moves from somewhere under Sashay.” From this moment, Cashay stomps fiercely through the novel. “Nothing is right at all anymore.” Her sister is dead. Her mother, in grief, quits her job and retreats into a hazy world of drugs, taking up with a junkie called Mr. Giggles. Even Cashay’s neighborhood seems to desert her: the very bricks and mortar where she has lived all thirteen years are steadily turned to dust by the wrecking ball, and deluxe “Village” apartments, Starbuckses, and Blockbusters built in their place, “the bulldozers out screaming early in the morning.” At Freemont Middle School, the guidance counselor makes Cashay’s anger even more aggressive. She curses at the only teacher who ever cared for her. She attacks a classmate in rage. Soon she is sent to an after-school program run by nuns, and all the while Sashay haunts her dreams and waking hours. She can feel her there in the double bed they shared. She sees her waving and laughing from the girls’ bedroom window ledge. Her days become zombielike: eat, sleep, school, repeat. And when her mother is arrested after giving birth to Cashay’s drug-addicted baby brother, Cashay even quits attending school altogether, for fear of social workers who might try and send her to foster care. Cashay yearns for “Before. Back when Sashay was not dead Sashay. Back when we thought getting pregnant was the worst thing that could happen to us–that and getting bit by a West Nile mosquito.” Eventually, at the Catholic center, Cashay is paired with an adult mentor, Allison, a youngish white stockbroker “too much red stuff on her cheeks and she’s wobbling on a pair of high heels and her short suit skirt is riding up and she can’t stop smiling.” At first, Cashay isn’t interested in Allison’s help. She thinks she’s just volunteering to meet men. But Allison treats Cashay as an equal, and Cashay, in turn, focuses on school again. The two form an alliance much like a sisterhood, though Cashay is careful not to define it as such, with Allison’s understanding. All this happiness comes at a cost, however, when the man responsible for Sashay’s murder slinks back into the picture. What happens then is startling, and we are reminded how fragile Cashay’s existence in Cabrini Green really is. Cashay survives, despite all her loss, and we readers, by the end, see more than a spark of hope. We see a real fire. Margaret McMullan has crafted a thrilling, page-turning plot about an incredibly gifted, bright teenaged girl facing unspeakable horrors. Not only has she entered adolescence, which is certainly difficult for any young person, she has entered it virtually alone, her family blown apart by violence, drugs, and poverty. McMullan’s writing is downright beautiful. Cashay’s voice is strong and true and sassy, and life in Cabrini Green is documented with the respect it deserves. As Cashay’s aunt tells reporters after Sashay’s murder, “Yeah, we’ve got a lot of gangs. And yeah, we’ve got a lot of drugs. But it’s still home.” In the end, Cashay doesn’t let Cabrini Green disappear from her life altogether, although she is given the option of letting it. She returns, despite the ugliness and danger. After all, it will always be home.