On the Outskirts of Normal
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On the Outskirts of Normal

Forging a Family Against the Grain

Title Details

Pages: 224

Illustrations: 2 b&w photos

Trim size: 5.500in x 8.500in



Pub Date: 11/01/2015

ISBN: 9-780-8203-4911-4

List Price: $22.95


Pub Date: 11/01/2015

ISBN: 9-780-8203-4910-7

List Price: $22.95

On the Outskirts of Normal

Forging a Family Against the Grain

A white single mother; a black daughter; and a small Texas town

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  • Description
  • Reviews

After moving to a humble cottage outside of a tiny Texas town, Debra Monroe rids herself of an abusive husband, battles sexist contractors and workers as she renovates her home, and finally, after several disheartening letdowns, is able to adopt her beautiful baby daughter, Marie. Though elated that her dream is coming true, Monroe faces trials that befall her not just as a single mother but as a white mother of a black child. In On the Outskirts of Normal, two-time National Book Award nominee Monroe’s heart creaks “like china with hairline cracks” each time a racist comment rolls their way or stares linger a little too long in their direction. Though she and her daughter face serious undiagnosed illnesses leading to innumerable, painful doctor visits, Monroe remains steadfast in her dedication to Marie and their small but tight family.

Reading On the Outskirts of Normal at times feels like driving through an unwieldy thunderstorm at night on the unlit country roads that snake their way to Monroe’s house in the woods; readers will feel her exhaustion but will be buoyed by her ever-present faith and fiery love. Pulitzer Prize winner Madeleine Blais writes that On the Outskirts of Normal is the “real deal: both a literary triumph and a triumph of the heart.”

In a setting where working mothers are rare, novelist and Debra Monroe’s adoption of a black baby puts her On the Outskirts of Normal.

—Vanity Fair

A single woman’s spunky memoir about the hazards and rewards of building a home and a family outside a small Texas town. Novelist and short-story writer Monroe adopted Marie, an African-American baby, and raised her in the Texas countryside where single female professors were an oddity and single white women with black babies were unheard of. The child of divorced parents and with two failed marriages behind her, the author wanted to create a loving family of her own, but first she had to fashion a suitable home out of a rundown cabin she owned. How she became her own contractor and handled the assorted workmen who didn't know how to deal with a female boss could have been a stand-alone story, but the author integrates it into the larger context of motherly love. Single motherhood is challenging, but when race, misdiagnosed illnesses, surgery and the demands of a busy professional life are added, the struggles are compounded. Some problems—e.g., how to handle Marie's mass of hair--are not exactly serious, but nevertheless time-consuming and frustrating. "If you're white," writes the author, "black hair care is a secret," and she devotes an entire chapter to her dedicated search for the key to that enigma. Finding a mate amid adverse circumstances--the pickings for a female professional are slim in rural Texas—presents another problem, but the central issue is the journey of parenting. This tale of trials and triumph is an engaging, poignant read.

—Kirkus Reviews

Monroe delivers compassion, keen wit, and acute honesty. She never lets us blink; we stare while she figures out how to handle her daughter's hair; while she suffers at the hands of a doctor; and while her neighbor makes a bad judgment call, leaving her yard and house exposed to passing cars and random predators. She shares her fear with us, and, in doing so, reveals her own bravery

—Foreword Reviews

Monroe doesn’t waste time justifying her family to others—her care and clear-eyed focus on her daughter make their own argument. It’s absolutely clear this is the life she chose. “The sprawling mess of life is why we need stories,” she writes, “a fleeting sense of order so we return to life with the unproven but irresistible conviction our mistakes and emergencies matter

—Amy Benfer, Barnes & Noble Review

High-velocity verve and gripping insight matched in rare form by the level of compassion—anyone who cares this much about getting a little girl’s hair just right is a truly endearing person. Flaws and question marks, local places, very particular people, wit and weariness and astonishment at the myriad ways a life unfolds—inviting readers not only to the comfortable “outskirts of normal” but the genuine heart of it all.

—Naomi Shihab Nye

Having driven across the country to see her brand-new adopted granddaughter, Debra Monroe’s mother says the first thing that comes into her head. “I knew she’d be black, but not this black.” There are many possible reactions to this, but Monroe simply says, “Mom, there’s a blank in the baby book called ‘Grandma’s First Words.’” The sly, dry humor of this—the offering of the second chance, the reminder that everything, even the mistakes, will be written down—tells you everything you need to know about Monroe’s approach to life, and memoir. Monroe’s generosity of spirit and excellent word choice never fail her.

—Marion Winik, author of First Comes Love

Debra Monroe’s On the Outskirts of Normal is a modern story with a generous dose of old-fashioned values at its core. The adoption of a beautiful black baby girl by a white single woman shouldn’t still be news in today’s America, but it is, perhaps especially so in a small Texas town. Told in a voice that is feisty, wise, unsentimental, humorous, candid, and consoling, Debra Monroe’s memoir of love that was lost, but now is found, will entrance its readers, who will surely admire the author’s ability to transcend negative or befuddled reactions to her and her daughter as she inaugurates a whole new conversation about the true meaning of family. This book is the real deal: both a literary triumph and a triumph of the heart.

—Madeleine Blais, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of In These Girls, Hope is a Muscle

Sometimes the barren years bloom, flourishing atop old scar tissue, and give each of us a new heart. This, then, is the promise of Debra Monroe’s extraordinarily poignant, powerfully written memoir, which charts one woman’s tenacious journey into strength and unlikely motherhood and unexpected joys. She gathers along the way the brave yet painful knowledge of what love costs. Monroe is an unflinching commentator on self as well as society, a myth-buster as well as a trailblazer in an America that is neither post-racial nor post-sexist, and I suspect the significance of this book will only grow in value, a cultural benchmark, in the years and decades ahead of us.

—Bob Shacochis, National Book Award-winning author of Easy in the Islands and Domesticity: A Gastronomic Interpretation of Love

Compelling and full of pain and honesty, On the Outskirts of Normal wrestles with the messiness of the search for insight in the wake of trouble. Debra Monroe approaches the subject of race, always fraught with landmines, with humor and humility. Full of stylish shifts and comic, edgy observations, Monroe’s story reveals much about parents who are present and parents who are absent, about good and bad caregiving, and about the stability of the places we call home.

—David Haynes, author of Somebody Else’s Mama and The Full Matilda

Any narrator who repels an intruding raccoon by pelting it with books of poems has my full attention. Debra Monroe has written a wise, unsparing testament to the fierceness and fragility of love.

—Michael Perry, author of Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time and Truck: A Love Story

Debra Monroe forges not only her charming “family against the grain,” but a remarkable canniness about motherhood and its twin perils, grief and love.

—Karen Brennan, author of Being With Rachel

Debra Monroe writes about the complications, and gifts, of transracial adoption.


Should a middle-aged white woman with a history of failed relationships try to raise a black baby in small-town Texas? Author Monroe proves she's got the right stuff. Candid about men, mothering, racism, and her own flaws, she shows that it's possible to create something beautiful out of a tattered past.


If On the Outskirts of Normal were a country-rock song, Lucinda Williams would sing it. In this graceful, disquieting and intensely felt account of her navigation from the outskirts to normal, Monroe offers the story of how she became the mother she needed to be—not to Marie, who in Monroe always had a fine mother, but for herself, so she could finally have and keep what she deserved.

—Atlanta Journal Constitution

An unsentimental memoir about a white woman who adopts a black baby in a small Texas town.

—O, the Oprah Magazine

About the Author/Editor

DEBRA MONROE is the author of The Source of Trouble, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She is also the author of the short story collection A Wild, Cold State; two novels, Newfangled and Shambles; two memoirs, On the Outskirts of Normal and My Unsentimental Education (both Georgia); and the essay collection It Takes a Worried Woman (Georgia). She is the editor of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Austin, Texas, and teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University.