"What is she?"
"This is your little girl ... are you sure?"
"That's your daughter?"
Debra Monroe is accustomed to the questions. After all, any white woman who adopts a black infant might expect to encounter a few raised eyebrows here and there.
As the talented memoirist explains in her riveting new book, "On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain" (Southern Methodist University Press, 248 pages, $22.50), the love Monroe shares with her 11-year-old daughter, Marie, triumphs over any of the racial complexities the two have experienced in their precious time together.
Not that it has been moonlight and magnolias. Far from it.
Monroe, a Wisconsin native, brought the babe-in-arms from the hospital to her then-home in a small Texan town. A white woman raising a black child was big news in those parts. People had questions. "Who is the father?" some wanted to know. Others assumed she was a big-hearted foster mother.
Even those closest to Monroe made gaffes, including her mother. The open-minded grandmother's first meeting with baby Marie was inauspicious at best, despite the great bond the two eventually formed.
"She went inside where Marie lay on the sofa, no bigger than a stuffed animal. My mother, road-weary, stared. 'I knew she'd be black,' she said, 'but not this black.' I said, 'Mom, there's a blank in the baby book called "Grandma's First Words."' My mother blushed. ... 'Another try?' I suggested. ... 'She's lovely,' my mother said at last, her voice uncertain. I wrote it in the baby book."
Monroe is a lovable narrator because she readily admits she doesn't know enough about raising a black child. Soon she's asking for help from everyone she knows, regardless of color. Readers' hearts will burst with admiration as she struggles to "get it right," and not be "one of those white women" who attempt to raise their children in an imaginary race-less world. For example, she quickly learns that she needs help with Marie's hair, and rapidly grasps the near-sacred role a woman's hair plays in the life of a black woman. (Monroe posits that "hair issues" are to black women what weight issues are for their paler sisters. The plump and frizzy-haired are extended dual citizenship.)
Things are rarely easy for Monroe and Marie. They cope with deadlines, baby sitters, home repairs, illness and even death. Through it all they stick together, and sweet, intelligent Marie positively steals the show.
While Monroe may not unravel all the riddles of race by the end of this immaculately written memoir, what she does reveal is a far greater truth -- that the love of a good mother knows no color.
Andrea Hoag is a Lawrence, Kan., book critic.