In June of 1974 Ruth announces the family is moving to Delaware. Three years after the death of her second husband, her house is in disrepair and she’s unable to maintain it financially. James is excited to leave; his old friends are bad news, and he’ll probably have to complete an additional year of school if he stays in New York. Meanwhile, his sisters love the city and want to stay. Ruth waffles back and forth, but eventually commits to moving. At the end of the summer, the family loads up a U-Haul and drives to Wilmington, chosen because Ruth has an old friend who lives in the state.
Ruth needs to move for financial reasons, but picks her location based on personal ones — she hopes that having a friend in Delaware will provide her with some kind of readymade community. Ruth also wants to move for personal reasons; all her life she’s run from tragedy, and in the wake of her second husband’s death she needs a change of location so she can begin to move on.
James and his family are shocked by the suburbs. Unlike in New York, where they could take public transportation anywhere, they need a car to navigate the town. The town itself is shockingly segregated, with white families living in the suburbs and attending well-funded schools, and black families living in the city at understaffed, underfunded schools.
Wilmington is immediately a disappointment because of both its suburban sprawl and its racism. Although Ruth had assumed Delaware was “Northern” enough to avoid the anti-black sentiments of her childhood, the segregation of the city is not unlike Suffolk.
One evening, while the family is driving, they’re pulled over by state troopers. David, who was driving, had made an illegal U-turn, and although that’s generally only cause for a ticket or citation, he’s taken to night court. In court Ruth panics, and yells across the room to David not to plead guilty. From this moment on Ruth decides she hates Delaware and is moving. She loads her daughters on the Amtrak going north, but two hours later James has convinced her to stay.
Although Ruth already dislikes Wilmington for its segregated neighborhoods, she turns against it forever when her son is arrested. David did make an illegal traffic maneuver, but his arrest was likely racially motivated, as it’s the kind of offense that generally gets a ticket or warning and not an immediate trial. Ruth values her children and their success above all else, and so this interaction with the police is especially horrible for her, as it threatens to jeopardize David’s future.
James understands that Ruth is “spinning in crazy circles only because she was trying to survive,” and she always starts running when she’s in a tight spot. For the past thirty years she’s been married, but now she has to run a family entirely alone. Eventually, Ruth is jolted out of her spiral of panic and guilt by prayer, and by her commitment to her children’s education. Unhappy with the public schools, she gets her driver’s license and attempts to enroll James in a private or Catholic school. His years of missing school mean he can’t pass their entrance exams, however, so James is forced to go to the all-black Pierre S. Du Pont High School.
Ruth’s move to Delaware was an attempt to regain control of her life, as she’s always found changing locations to be useful. This time moving doesn’t help, but she does find focus and purpose in her children’s education. In the end, Ruth’s family is her anchor, and she is able to center herself by trying to help her children get into the best possible schools.
Luckily, James and his sisters like Du Pont high school. James finds the schoolwork easy and commits himself to music instead of drinking and doing drugs. He is even selected to travel to Europe with the American Youth Jazz Band. Although James cannot pay for it, Mr. and Mrs. Dawson, a rich white couple from Pennsylvania, sponsor him. Their one request is that he, and other students they sponsor, work at their estate on weekends during the summer. James is aware of what a turnaround he has had in life—from sitting on the Corner in Louisville to acting as a butler for rich white people in the Pennsylvania suburbs. Although the men and women he serves (among them the governor of Delaware) are nothing like him or his family, James “had no anger toward them”; instead, his “anger at the world had been replaced by burning ambition.”
James’s interactions with the Dawsons are some of his first positive encounters with white people. Although their scholarship comes with strings attached and he’s forced to act as their butler for the summer, interacting with the Dawsons shows him that not all white people will be discriminatory against him. Additionally, seeing the family’s lavish home and wealthy friends is aspirational, and motivates James to work harder, presumably so he can be rich like them.
James is a terrible butler, but he gets along with Mrs. Dawson, who is the first white person to talk to him about music, art, and literature. James also works in the grounds and gardens of the estate, but he’s bad at that too, and eventually Mrs. Dawson fires him. He’s upset that she tells him “You, boy, have to learn to work,” but is grateful to be fired.
James’s relationship with Mrs. Dawson is complicated but generally positive. She teaches him about music, art, and literature, and treats him as an equal. Still, the racial divide and norms of an unequal society are always present between them, like when she calls him “boy,” which is a derogatory way white people have been referring to black adult men for decades.
Years later, as a college student, James receives a letter from Mrs. Dawson that Mr. Dawson has died of cancer. Later on that day another black student comments that “whiteys” are “all rich. They got no problems,” and while James agrees, he feels conflicted.
In college James’s feelings about the Dawsons are conflicted. On the one hand, he’s become more invested in his blackness, and as a result he and his friends are more dismissive of white struggles. On the other, he knows Mrs. Dawson on a human level, and understands that, despite what his friends say, she is experiencing similar hardship. This likely also reminds him of his own white mother, and the grief she’s felt after the deaths of her husbands.
James considers graduating from high school and immediately trying to start a music career, but more than anything wants to leave Delaware, which he knows will be easier if he goes to college. He applies and is admitted to Oberlin, and in September 1975 packs his bags and drives to the Greyhound station. Even as he is getting out, James is aware that Ruth is stuck in the state. She has few friends, and cannot get along with anyone, black or white. As his bus begins to drive away he thinks of all the times Ruth has put him on a bus—to camp, to elementary school, to Kentucky—to try and guarantee him a better life. He knows how much it hurts her to send her children away, but he also knows she believes it is the best way to make sure they are successful. Although Ruth never cries in front of her children, as the bus turns the corner James can see Ruth sobbing against the wall of the bus station.
Ruth lives her life with the intention of giving her children more opportunities than she ever had. Although Ruth hates Delaware and wants to get out, and although she would love her children to live nearby, she forces James to leave because she knows it will provide him with more opportunities. Ruth sees family as the people one makes sacrifices for, a sentiment likely grown out of her own upbringing, where, with the exception of her own mother, no one ever made sacrifices for her.