Sandrine's Letter to Tomorrow is a powerful and poignant debut. Author Dedra Johnson uses her fresh new voice and vivid imagery to weave an interesting but haunting coming-of-age tale that touches on issues including family dysfunction, sexual abuse, racial and gender discrimination, and self-discovery.
On the outside, the story’s protagonist, eight-year-old Sandrine Miller, is seemingly a happy-go-lucky African American kid whose love for reading makes her appear introverted. But appearances are just that. Sandrine is actually living a nightmare. Her mother, Shirleen, harbors deep resentment toward her – not only because her birth made her a teenaged mother, but also for the fact that her only child has very light skin, light enough to pass for white. The resentment manifests itself in how Shirleen treats the young girl, which is despicably. She forces her to clean the house and make it spotless, even making her wash dishes that aren’t dirty. When she’s finally done, her servitude is not complete; she is told to go down the street and clean her grandmother’s house. This Cinderella routine is Sandrine’s norm. For this poor girl, her father’s mother, “Mamalita,” is like a fairy godmother whom she adores and can’t wait to go visit. Her father normally comes to pick her up for the summer and they have a great time, especially when he takes her to Mamalita’s. However, this summer turns out to be quite different. Her father has a new wife, Philipa, who also has a daughter two years younger than Sandrine. While the father is at work, Philipa leaves the children alone, unsupervised for hours on end.
Later, when Sandrine discovers that Mamalita has died, she is devastated and her world completely crumbles. The school year starts, and she quickly learns the harsh realities of discrimination. Philipa’s daughter, Yolanda, comes for a visit, and Shirleen immediately shows her love and affection that she doesn’t extend to her own daughter. Even worse, Sandrine barely escapes sexual assault, and Shirleen blames her daughter for it. Eventually Sandrine’s father finally comes to the rescue, taking custody of his child. But is it too late?
Sandrine's Letter to Tomorrow is both touching and disturbing, but at times the pacing is off. The story sometimes drags then seems to rush to a close. Nonetheless, readers will cheer for Sandrine and hope that she ultimately prevails. Readers will be left with several unanswered questions, such as why Sandrine’s father doesn’t step up sooner to protect his daughter, and why it’s so easy for Shirleen to be a mother to a child who isn’t her own. What are the motives for the hatred toward Sandrine from her mother, grandmother and stepmother?
Even with the unanswered questions, this novel presents a realistic portrayal of a young girl’s journey to discover just who she is - an emotional journey, but one readers will enjoy.