RHC 2017: Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color.

UCA is hosting the inaugural C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference this year. I am a woman, I would like to be a writer, and the conference is being held at a very low registration cost within easy driving distance of my house – this sounds like my best shot to attend one of these things while keeping my impostor syndrome at bay, and I’m very much looking forward to it.

The conference’s opening keynote speaker is Tayari Jones, and I was happy to see that I could line one of her works up with Read Harder (the year’s getting away from me and I’m not going to have time to read much that isn’t challenge-related). I chose Silver Sparrowbecause at the time it was the most recent of her three published novels. Her fourth book An American Marriage will be released next February.

I really enjoyed Silver Sparrow. This was one of novels where John Gardner’s “fictional dream” was in full effect. I found myself completely lost in the world of the book, and I genuinely enjoyed spending time with its two protagonists – fierce, independent Dana and shy, gentle-hearted Chaurisse.

The two girls share the same father, but Dana is the only one who knows this (the novel starts in Dana’s perspective, with the fabulous opening line, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.”). Dana’s mother recognizes the power she and Dana have from this knowledge, in spite of the bitterness stemming from their limited access to James. Both girls have complicated and completely different relationships with James, who winds up being a much more sympathetic character than I expected him to be.

In the first half of the book, we get a heartbreaking portrait of Dana’s twilight world of a childhood. She can’t accept a choice teenage gig at a theme park because her half-sister Chaurisse plans to work there and James wants to avoid any contact between the two girls. Dana’s choice of college is dependent on where Chaurisse wants to go. Most importantly, Dana is starving for her father’s love and attention, and she gets far too little of both, while from a distance she sees Chaurisse enjoying it constantly and without complication.

Halfway through, Jones shifts to Chaurisse’s voice. This was jarring for me at first, as docile, coddled Chaurisse seemed awfully uninteresting to me after tough, smart, independent Dana. However, I quickly came around to caring about Chaurisse just as much. Chaurisse meets Dana in a drugstore and helps Dana avoid a shoplifting rap, completely unaware that Dana has been surreptitiously keeping tabs on her for years. Chaurisse believes Dana to be a “silver girl,” and I know exactly what she means. My much less poetic personal term for these people was/is “the cool kids.” This species seems to glide through life perfectly secure in their own skin. These people are smart, they’re typically good-looking, they’re usually funny, they’re sometimes kind, and they’re enviably untroubled by the amount of space they require in the world.

We learn that Chaurisse views Dana as a silver girl after spending half of the novel in Dana’s head. This means that while Chaurisse is awe-struck by her new friend and hopes that some of Dana’s “shine” will rub off on her, we know how complicated and imperfect Dana actually is, and how achingly jealous she is of her half-sister. It’s a neat effect. It’s fairly painful to read Chaurisse’s thrill at making a friend while being able to see Dana’s torn loyalties to her mother, her father, and to her sister running alongside Chaurisse’s total obliviousness (it’s also extremely well done on Jones’ part).

James’ two daughters were both unplanned pregnancies, and both of their mothers love them fiercely. The two women lead very different lives, and their pregnancies have very different effects on their futures. Dana’s mother Gwendolyn and Chaurisse’s mother Laverne also figure prominently in the story. Both women found themselves unexpectedly pregnant – in Laverne’s case, while still a teenager. Laverne gets moved into James’ house to be his wife, where she is expected to cook for him and do his laundry after she is expelled from school and her young life comes crashing to an unexpected halt. Dana’s mother, on the other hand, is a ferociously independent lady who’s estranged from her own parents.

Atlanta is also a major character in the novel, and it comes through with charm and grace and contradiction. When Dana and Chaurisse find themselves out of the city limits after dark, a white gas station attendant refuses to take them home because he doesn’t dare visit Atlanta. But the Atlanta that the book’s cast inhabits is hardly the inner city hellscape the attendant seems to be imagining. Several characters have successfully moved from working for white people to owning their own businesses and being respected community figures. And the saying among Dana and Chaurisse’s friends and family is, “be careful when you leave Atlanta, because you’ll end up in Georgia” (266).

There’s so much going on in Silver Sparrow – family is at the forefront of the book, thematically speaking, but friendship counts for quite a bit too (particularly between James and his ever-present and preternaturally understanding friend Raleigh). There’s so much wonderful material about being a teenager, too – best friends, clandestine pot smoking, first romances, and that secret shadow world that teens build for themselves under the very noses of the adults who love them but no longer understand them.

I’m very much looking forward to hearing Tayari Jones speak in November, and I can’t wait to read her forthcoming novel.

I’d also like to humbly submit that the Read Harder Challenge might be more aptly titled the Read Better Challenge (and I offer this gentle criticism with so much love for Book Riot and for this reading project that’s kept me so engaged all year). Some tasks were indeed difficult for me to complete (book about war, book about sports), but this one was pure reading bliss. It’s not intrinsically “hard” to read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color, but it’s absolutely better for any reader to read books by and about people who are different from you and/or different from the writers and works that have historically and unfairly had a much easier time rising to prominence.

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