Rosa Guy 1925–
Rosa Guy 1925–INTRODUCTION
(Full name Rosa Cuthbert Guy) Trinidad-born American novelist, editor, and author of young adult novels, juvenile novels, and picture books.
The following entry presents an overview of Guy's career through 2003. For further information on her life and career, see CLR, Volume 13.
Among the most prominent Caribbean-American children's authors of the twentieth century, Guy offers young readers a glimpse inside the changing world of the urban ghetto as seen through the eyes of its children. Recognized with literary awards both nationally and abroad—including the Children's Literature Association's Phoenix Award for The Disappearance (1979)—Guy's works are intentionally problematic as are her colorful protagonists. Chiefly a fiction writer for young adults, Guy began her career by chronicling the lives of young African- and Caribbean-American women but later expanded her focus to include mysteries involving young men. Her young adult novels describe the obstacles African- and Caribbean-American teenagers face in America. Through the experiences of largely adolescent protagonists living in Harlem and elsewhere, Guy has explored themes of individual and community survival, friendship, and social acceptance.
Guy was born on September 1, 1925, on the Caribbean island of Trinidad to Henry and Audrey Cuthbert. During her youth, her parents moved to New York City, with Rosa and her younger sister joining them five years later in 1932. Shortly after their arrival, however, her mother grew sick, necessitating that the two girls move in with a cousin in Brooklyn. After her mother's death in 1934, Guy's father remarried, and their family was reunited briefly—until her father's own passing in 1937, leaving Guy and her sister orphaned and living in the New York State foster care system. At age fourteen, after her sister became ill, Guy left school to take employment at a brassiere factory and, during World War II, she joined the American Negro Theatre (ANT), becoming a late entrant of the famed Harlem Renaissance. She married Warner Guy at age sixteen and gave birth to her only child, Warner Guy, Jr., two years later in 1942. Her tenure with the ANT had coincided with her husband's service in World War II and, upon his return, the family moved to Connecticut, forcing Guy to place her acting aspirations on hold. After the eventual dissolution of her marriage, Guy returned to New York with her son, again finding work at a factory and trying to renew her theater ambitions. To that end, she enrolled at New York University, studying theater and writing. She became involved with the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, and she even performed in a play she wrote, Venetian Blinds, which was produced at a small Off-Off-Broadway theater in 1954. In 1951 she co-founded—with John Oliver Killens—the Harlem Writer's Guild, an organization that was credited as one of the most successful African-American writing workshops in the country, attracting such talents as Audre Lorde, Paule Marshall, and Maya Angelou. Now an established playwright and author of short stories, Guy published her first novel, Bird at My Window, in 1966, which received a favorable critical reception upon its release. In 1968, after race riots, civil rights protests, and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., Guy traveled across the nation interviewing young African-American adults about their reactions to these events. She edited their comments, and they were published in 1971 in her first book of nonfiction, Children of Longing.
In the field of children's literature, Guy is perhaps best known for her "Friends" trilogy of young adult novels, which explore the relationships between two black families in America—the Cathys, originally from the West Indies, and the Jacksons, African Americans living in Harlem. Throughout these texts, Guy tackles the difficult and sensitive issues of racism in America as well as the hostility between African Americans and African West Indians. She also focuses on themes such as the difficulties of communication between parents and children, the struggle for acceptance, and homosexuality, once a taboo topic in teen literature. The characters that people these novels—Phylissia, Edith, and Ruby—were all based on youngsters Guy had known when she and her sister had lived in an orphans' home in New York. In the first novel, The Friends (1973), Phylissia Cathy and Edith Jackson are the titular friends, two teenagers who come to trust and understand one another after a stormy beginning. Edith is Harlem born and raised, street-smart, poor, and growing up almost on her own. Phylissia, on the other hand, is educated and proud, a recent immigrant from the West Indies who is struggling with her outsider status and her oppressive father. Both girls need a friend, but culture and family play against such a relationship. Edith takes Phylissia under her protective wing at school, and the girls form an unlikely bond, but a visit to the Cathys' home proves disastrous for the friendship. Shortly thereafter, Phylissia's mother dies, and the young girl's relationship with her father becomes even more strained. Phylissia is left to develop a sense of herself on her own. Phylissia's older sister is featured in the second novel in the series, Ruby (1976), in which this pretty but rather vapid girl is desperately unhappy, being dubbed an "Uncle Tom" at her school because of her West Indian background. She finds little consolation at home with Phylissia forever reading and her father withdrawn and distant, and she is slowly attracted to a strong black girl, Daphne, with whom she ultimately forges a lesbian relationship. Guy completed her trilogy with Edith Jackson (1978), in which she focuses on the life of the scruffy teenager who once befriended Phylissia. Edith, now living in a foster home, tries to take care of her three orphaned sisters, vowing to be the mother for them as soon as she reaches adulthood at age eighteen. Edith tries valiantly to create a family for her three sisters but becomes pregnant instead herself. Finally she decides not to have the baby, but to prepare herself to make something of her life instead. By the end of the novel, she realizes that she must come to terms with herself before she can be responsible for others.
Guy has also written a second trilogy of books set largely in Harlem and Brooklyn, featuring young Imamu Jones, a teenager who has dropped out of school after his father was killed in Vietnam and his mother began drinking. The first novel, The Disappearance, opens with Imamu being arrested for supposedly taking part in the armed robbery of a grocery store. He is found innocent at the trial when it is learned he did not know that one of his friends had a gun with him. A volunteer social worker, Ann Aimsley, persuades the judge to make her Imamu's legal guardian, and the boy goes to live with her in Brooklyn. However, when the Aimsleys' daughter disappears and suspicion falls on him for a time, Imamu vows to find the missing girl. In the second novel of the "Imamu Jones" trilogy, New Guys around the Block (1983), Imamu, with Olivette and Pierre Larouche, investigates burglaries in a nearby white neighborhood. Again, suspicion falls for a time on Imamu as the burglar, and he vows to track down the criminal to clear his own name. Suspicion thereafter falls on a recently released convict whom the police corner but who dies to avoid capture. Yet Imamu remains unconvinced about the ex-convict's guilt. In the third book in the series, And I Heard a Bird Sing (1987), Imamu is reunited with his widowed mother, helps her to overcome her drinking habit, and finds a job that he likes, delivering food to white customers in Brooklyn. But racism rears its head when he takes a special interest in a young disabled girl. When the girl, Margaret, is found murdered, Imamu is on the scene to bring the perpetrator to justice.
Although the "Friends" and "Imamu Jones" trilogies are known for their gritty realism, Guy has authored several lighter works for younger readers. In Mirror of Her Own (1981), Guy presents a story set in an affluent, white suburban neighborhood, in which shy, plain, and stuttering Mary tries to win acceptance with the in-crowd at school. In The Ups and Downs of Carl Davis III (1989), Guy recounts the trials and tribulations of young Carl when he is sent from the dangerous inner city to live with his grandmother in South Carolina. In letters home, the reader learns of his attempts to teach the kids at his new school—and his history teacher—about black history and of their resistance to listen to him. With her 1992 novel, The Music of Summer, Guy moved even farther afield from Harlem, to a vacation house on Cape Cod where Sarah, a dark-skinned African American, does not fit in with the light-skinned, frivolous crowd gathered around her old friend, Cathy. Sarah, an aspiring concert pianist, is about to return to New York when a new houseguest arrives. Jean Pierre is a development worker headed for Africa, and Sarah soon falls for this committed young man and must choose between her dreams of a career and his idealism. Guy has also authored two picture books, the African folktale, Mother Crocodile: An Uncle Amadou Tale from Senegal (1981), which she adapted and translated, and Billy the Great (1992), which tells of Billy's growing friendship with the boy next door, Rod. Race figures in—Billy's family is black and Rod's white—but class is even stronger: Billy comes from a middle class family, Rod comes from a working class clan. Yet, in the end, the boys find common ground. Guy has also written three novels for adults, in addition to her debut work, Bird at My Window. These include A Measure of Time (1983), My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl (1985), and The Sun, the Sea, a Touch of the Wind (1995). In A Measure of Time, Guy tells the story of a self-made millionaire, Dorine Davis, who grew up poor and black in Alabama, and succeeds in Harlem through the years of the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression, and into the beginnings of the civil rights movement of the 1950s. My Love, My Love is a modern reinterpretation of the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairly tale "The Little Mermaid," and The Sun, the Sea, a Touch of the Wind relates the story of an African-American artist who flees to the supposed solitude of Haiti as a palliative to a near nervous breakdown, only to find that her emotional and mental anguish are compounded by the island's extremes: wealth juxtaposed against poverty.
Guy has been heralded as one of the most important and influential figures in twentieth-century African-American children's literature. Noted author Alice Walker has lauded the realism of Guy's novel The Friends and commented that, "I relive those wretched, hungry-for-heroine years and am helped to verify the existence and previous condition of myself." Maya Angelou has also recommended Guy's Bird at My Window for young readers, stating that, "brave examination of a loving, yet painful, relationship between a Black mother and her son is even more important today. Rosa Guy is a fine writer and she continually gives us new issues to contemplate." In her critical assessment of The Friends, Jerrie Norris has called the text "an emotionally intense novel charged with Guy's memories of her own experiences as a West Indian child coming of age in Harlem—proud of her roots yet attacked for them, bright and spirited but frustrated by the limitations that her race and her physical features put on her." In more general terms, reviewers have regularly complimented Guy's gripping narratives and vivid characterizations as well as her objective and sophisticated approach to her subjects. While some critics have found Guy's settings and dialogue difficult or unfamiliar, most have commented favorably on the authenticity and universality of her books. Cherrell V. Robinson has argued that, "Guy's strength lies in her perceptive portrayal of the adolescent experience by means of her graphic descriptions, vivid characterizations, and the obvious empathy with which she writes. Her works are of particular significance to black young adults, who need to see themselves positively presented in the literature they encounter."
Bird at My Window (young adult novel) 1966
Children of Longing [editor] (essays) 1971
The Friends (young adult novel) 1973
Ruby (young adult novel) 1976
Edith Jackson (young adult novel) 1978
The Disappearance (young adult novel) 1979
Mirror of Her Own (juvenile novel) 1981
Mother Crocodile: An Uncle Amadou Tale from Senegal [illustrations by John Steptoe] (picture book) 1981
A Measure of Time (novel) 1983
New Guys around the Block (juvenile novel) 1983
Paris, Pee Wee, and Big Dog [illustrations by Caroline Binch] (juvenile novel) 1984
My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl (juvenile novel) 1985
And I Heard a Bird Sing (juvenile novel) 1987
The Ups and Downs of Carl Davis III (juvenile novel) 1989
Billy the Great [illustrations by Caroline Binch] (picture book) 1992
The Music of Summer (juvenile novel) 1992
The Sun, the Sea, a Touch of the Wind (novel) 1995
Rosa Guy (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: Guy, Rosa. "The Human Spirit." In Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, edited by Selwyn R. Cudjoe, pp. 128-33. Wellesley, Mass.: Calaloux Publications, 1990.
[In the following essay, Guy discusses how events in her personal life and writing career have inspired her to believe in the power of the human spirit.]
I was born in Trinidad, West Indies, British West Indies back then. I started school in that British colony, dedicated to upholding British tradition. My family was the proud product of that colonial system, church-going, lower middle class. We looked down upon our more unfortunate brothers and sisters who lived in the bush. We had names for them: "chiggar in their feet and yampe in their eyes," was one phrase comparable to those used in the United States to designate the inferior status of nonwhites. They were poor, poorly dressed, and never allowed to step over into our charmed circle. Indeed, we guardians of British culture had been well chosen.
Years later (after my first book had been published) I chanced to be in England and riding on the train through the English countryside. On the plush green meadows, I saw sheep grazing. Oh, there are the sheep in the meadow, I said to myself. And there are the cows in the corn. I even saw black sheep. Upon arriving in London, I was delighted to behold that London Bridge had not fallen down, after all. In other words, generations of my family had spent and were still spending their lives learning things that had nothing to do with their lives on our little island in the sun and denigrating those who provided our sustenance.
After my family moved to the United States we were taught European literature in schools. We read American writing only in the comic strips. On Sundays we read a full page of the Katzenjammer kids, two white boys living in Africa, who spent their days making a fool of an African king who was dressed in a top hat and loincloth and smoked a big cigar, stuck between fat lips painted a bright red. On Saturdays we went to the movies and spent the entire day watching Tarzan. How we cheered when this apeman brought entire tribes to their knees and African chiefs bowed to kiss his feet. We saw all the "road" pictures featuring Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour. We shook in terror along with them when black cannibals prepared pots of oil in which to boil them. We howled with hysterical laughter, holding our stomachs, when American blacks rolled their eyes in fright or when Stephen Fetchet shuffled across the screen too lazy to lift his feet to walk, too lazy to lift his bottom lip to talk, the weird jingo supposed to be black English. And we clapped our hands to numbness as cowboys shot up Indians for daring to protect their lands from invading hordes of whites and shouted our agreement when our white heroes sneered from the sides of their mouths: "Ain't but one good Indian, a dead Indian."
We laughed and cheered, internalizing our sense of inferiority and concretizing the superiority of whites.
My mother was ill. But her relief at having her children away from the house on Saturdays, leaving her to her illness, quickly vanished when she learned about the movies we enjoyed. Lamenting the absence of black writings, which might at least have given us an overall portrait from which to draw, she forbade us to go to the movies on Saturdays and refused to allow the Sunday Journal-American in our home. From then until her death, we stayed home on Saturdays and read instead.
I read my first novel at age seven. My mother had been reading it and had put it aside, possibly intending to hide it. She was impressed that at my young age I had picked up and read a volume. She had a limited library, but she set out to choose my reading material. Together my mother and I read and discussed man's injustice to man. She taught me to look beyond the obvious, beyond mere words, to see into the soul of man.
She died. But the sharing with someone loved and lost carried with it its own drama and nostalgia. We had lived through experiences together, shared pain, and intellectual suffering, if you will, seeing beyond the threshold of each other's minds. That experience gave me a dimension that transcended age. We might not have interpreted the books the same way. I cannot say what she thought of each book. But she left me a legacy: she had sensitized me to the plight of others.
She never played with me. She had no time. We read, walked through the parks, and talked, talked, talked. I have often wondered if the anguish of the characters in the books we read actually affected me or whether their suffering was an extension of my own in my orphaned state, an anguish that magnified as time went by. Certainly the link that bound my mother and me went beyond the average parent-child relationship, beyond the economics of our situation, beyond pain, the suffering of impending death, and death. We had unlocked doors in our minds, opening them wide, allowing the pain and the suffering of others to infringe on us. Such suffering touched beyond the periphery of our minds, forcing us to plow beneath the surface of eyes, to stretch our imaginations beyond our limits in gauging the plight of others.
Wandering the streets of New York, I have been envious of children with parents, children in homes with the customary three-piece living room sets, where families sat and talked or listened to the radio or looked at television. And I have never seen cubs or kittens or puppies or yearlings or babies that I haven't choked back tears at the care given them. Every species guides its young toward independence, preparing them for their world. But terrifyingly, environmental changes put stress on animals. I have seen cats and dogs eat their young and humans kill their babies.
Tiptoeing through the casualties of poverty in the ghettoes—we called them ghettoes back then—I felt ostracized for those traits which being West Indian had etched into my personality. I was constantly aware of pain. Sensitized to it, I saw things that I alone could see and suffered as a result. I shall never forget the day I walked cringing the length of a snowbound street and not one snowball was hurled at my head. That was a happy day. I knew I was grown.
Although I ducked and dodged my way through adolescence, I never looked back in anger, only in sadness that there had been no books written, no guidelines to carry us over the deep but narrow ravines separating Americans from Americans—Americans from West Indians, from the suffering people of the world.
I have seen changes over generations. I have seen poor black and Hispanic and Indian children, who once upon a time looked on while a white world demeaned them, holding their stomachs in belly-splitting laughter, look back at themselves in anger, hating themselves, hating what they were made to be, and I knew that one day that hatred had to turn outward. And it did. I saw a generation that resented sitting in darkness, watching the occupants of a wall on the other side of the lights, pour champagne, eat caviar, drive in status-symbol cars, and I knew that one day they had to struggle to the death for status. They deserved status. They were Americans. They believed in the American way of life. They believed in democracy—for themselves. They believed in decent education and upward mobility for themselves too. And if barred from getting "things" through a decent education, they had to find a way. After all, they embodied the human spirit.
The United States is a playland. We are a country of exaggerators. We exaggerate everything. Drugs flood our affluent shores at an exaggerated rate. Not too long ago, the black poor were marked for drug abuse. Drugs poured into the ghettoes killed the minds, killed the souls of the poor black youth, and struck terror in the hearts of parents. Poor adults were made into victims by their children.
In a speech I gave in Japan, I spoke of this:
The 1960's, for all its traumas, was one of the most beautiful periods in American history. To those of us who lived through it, it seems like only yesterday. Television sets were in the homes but had not yet taken over parental responsibilities. Drugs on the streets had not yet changed youth gangs fighting over their turf into addicts, robbing everybody's turf.
Young people strong in their belief came out in numbers to follow Martin Luther King, Jr. They marched, sang, professed unity, and dedication to justice and to human dignity. Black and white students understanding the dehumanizing effects of prejudice and poverty shouted the slogans "Black Power," "Black is Beautiful" into black communities to arouse the black youth of their potential. By the mid-1970's that dream had ended with the killing of the Kent State students, the stoning of school children trying to ride buses to integrated northern schools, and the white backlash.
The country could no longer stand the exposure. Indeed, the struggle for human dignity seemed but a fad. Enlightenment had become a disease of the mind threatening to blight the nation.
"Benign neglect" replaced malignant neglect as responsible whites turned away when black youth, in the anguish of betrayal shouted "Burn Baby Burn," putting the torch to the ghettoes and white youth slunk away into some unknown underground to await a time when they were no longer so young; others turned to the cult of noncaring. The years in which it had been criminal to care had given birth to noncaring. Youth had seen the soul of middle America and preferred the forgetfulness, the decadence of drugs.
A generation has grown—is still growing—in those devastated ghettoes now called "inner cities," wastelands upper-class Americans seldom see. Generations are nurtured in the concrete swamps of razed city centers, suckled on mothers' bosoms in the darkness of bombed-out dwellings. Those who toddled with rats as playthings are men and women now. Their hard eyes are the products of dead dreams, descendants of the robbed and betrayed, secure only in their insecurity—their consciences reflecting the concretized dreams of their dead heroes personifying the violence that was done to them in their demands as they move into the surrounding world. Unafraid of dying, unafraid of killing, believing only in the terror that walks with them, they are weakening the fabric of society.
In this culture of exaggeration it had to be. We have gone from where the only good Indian is a dead Indian to every dude being a bad dude. We have the tallest buildings, the brightest lights, while in the dark beneath, the homeless grovel, beg, and starve, and the insane peer at us through eyes that threaten—biding their time, youth that once were poor are getting rich. They are cashing in on the big time, becoming millionaires. A few generations ago, when caught by a policeman, a poor or nonwhite person shook with fear and begged for life. Now a youth stopped for stealing might blow off the policeman's head. The white youths, once thought superior, are deep into drugs, getting their kicks from killing while sexing. Every time is playtime. We play; society crumbles.
The changes wrought by pride and prejudice are everywhere. Young turks from the bush made my little island their island in the sun. The once proud middle and lower middle classes peer through barred windows of their beautiful homes out at the young turks, who walk bravely around the countryside. That human spirit is a remarkable phenomenon: what one man has, another will have. What one can do, another will also do. If not at one time, at another time—when life changes.
I am not a sociologist. I am a novelist. The French call us romancier. I like the word. It speaks to the realm of imagination. My becoming a romancier might be spiritual, or how can one explain that I, orphaned on the streets of New York, untutored, decided to become a romancier pour écrire les romans pour les jeunes—and did. Surely the road between leaving my island in the sun, reading and sharing with my mother, was long, tortured, and twisted, strewn with bitter experiences, tragedies, and disappointments. But I have held on to her spirituality. She instilled in me a deep and abiding love for myself and others which enabled me to overcome clichés imposed by generations. She helped me to grasp the inevitability of change and so dissect the selfishness that makes it easier to hate than to love.
In my life I have experienced deep, dark passions. I have descended into depths of despair, rage, humiliation. But there is always the human will to live, the will to overcome—the human spirit.
In my reading I have lived through the agony of unrequited love with Andersen's Little Mermaid. I wrote about her in My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl. I suffered ostracism with Stephanie in Well of Loneliness, the curse of bigotry with Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, despair and confusion with Emma Bovary. The plight of Petit Javais and the injustices visited on Jean Valjean in Les Miserables might have been cut from my own childhood. All these authors sounded the warning through their themes that within oppression lies the seeds of liberation. Nothing lasts forever.
This, then, should be the lesson we share. Change is the one constant in life. The human beings populating the planet earth are those with whom we must move from one change to the next. A blending of ideas is important to make change easier. The sharing of cultures—a rare and beautiful concept—is inevitable. We cannot prevent change, but we can guide generational change if we care—only if we care!
To preserve our world we must put tradition where it belongs—in history books—and make current happenings alive with new meanings and new concepts to make a better life for ourselves and the generations to come. It is not easy. It can be exciting. Our society is tottering. Greed, the drug culture, is wreaking havoc on our lives and on the world as we know it. If not drugs there will surely be something else that we have to overcome. But there is after all the human spirit.
Rosa Guy (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: Guy, Rosa. "Rosa Guy." In Speaking for Ourselves: Autobiographical Sketches by Notable Authors of Books for Young Adults, compiled and edited by Donald R. Gallo, pp. 85-6. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1990.
[In the following essay, Guy discusses working as an African-American author in the field of children's literature.]
My first choice of artistic expression was the theater. I joined the American Negro Theater to study. I soon learned the limitations for advancement of the black artist on the American scene—limitations caused by the overwhelming prejudice in the society against the color of one's skin. This prejudice limits black actors and actresses to the most peripheral roles in theater in the United States and in American-influenced theater throughout the world. Many of the greatest black performers I have known have had to be satisfied with depicting servants, prostitutes, or slaves—and this after years of study. The few who have gone on to recognition have never had the chance to be considered truly great. No Laurence Olivier, Spencer Tracy, or Ronald Coleman. Never did our actresses become the grande dames of stage-screen-television as did Helen Hayes, Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, or Joan Crawford. The answer has always been "There are no works yet written." And yet black life pulses with energy and drama.
I came to the United States as a child of seven, and was orphaned at a young age, and so spent many of my growing years on the streets of New York. Before my eyes many dramas unfolded, dramas which out-Dickensed Dickens, and equaled if not rivaled the Brontë sisters in passion. Dramas to raise the consciousness of the truly committed: patterns of pride and prejudice, legends of the innocent and the damned, the intense struggles for human dignity—and survival….
I was already married and had a son when the obvious flaw woven into the fabric of this democratic society drove me to turn my talents to writing. Bird at My Window, my first novel, was published over twenty years ago. My works are published all over the world. Books of mine are a part of the syllabus in Great Britain. Today I look at those black artists who appear on stage, screen, and television. I look particularly for those who have been given roles depicting the lives of black folks—roles that have given them recognition as the grand talents on the American scene … and I keep on writing….
Jerrie Norris (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: Norris, Jerrie. "The Trilogy." In Presenting Rosa Guy, pp. 34-67. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1988.
[In the following essay, Norris analyzes Guy's use of self-identification in her "Friends" trilogy of young adult novels.]
Tiptoeing my way through the casualties of poverty in the ghettos—an orphan in New York, ostracized for those traits which being West Indian and Catholic had etched into my personality—wasn't easy. I shall never forget the day I walked, cringing, the length of a snowbound street and not one snowball was hurled at my head. I knew I was grown up: I believed myself immune from those influences molding the lives of the Americans among whom I lived.
Rubbish, of course. I realized that when I looked through the galleys of my soon-to-be published first book…. I had internalized all their pain, their resentment—to the snowballs hurled relentlessly at my head, and firecrackers at my feet—as I ducked and dodged my way through adolescence. But I never looked back in hate—but with a kind of sadness, a regret that there had been no books yet written, no guidelines from caring adults who might have made a difference, guiding us over the deep but narrow ravines dividing us.
—Rosa Guy, "All about Caring"
By virtue of both popularity and critical acclaim, Guy's trilogy is the work upon which her reputation is based. Set in Harlem during the turbulent years of the sixties and seventies, the trilogy encompasses the central years of adolescence of Ruby and Phylissia Cathy and their friend Edith Jackson. Rather than following a year-by-year progression, however, Guy focuses each of the three novels through the eyes and experiences of one of the young women, chronicling that individual's growth through a particular period of time. Self-discovery is the conjoining theme, and although the structures of the three novels vary, Guy's attention to the cycle of the seasons, the characters' chronological growth across time, the evolution of Harlem, and the continuing relationship among the young women supports a unifying sense of growth and continuity in the books as a unit. Emotionally, although not literally, autobiographical, each book is as powerful individually as the trilogy as a whole.
Guy's unique holistic vision makes the trilogy a perfect form for her exploration. This format allows her to focus intensely on three major themes highlighting growth and self-development as seen through the experiences of the three young women: reconciliation-with-self (working through the reflection that society gives of oneself to a comfortable and realistic image of self and circumstances); reconciliation-with-another (establishing constructive nonfamilial relationships); and reconciliation-with-the-world (making choices and accepting responsibilities in the world).1 Each book is an independent unit, however the connections between them make them three parts of a larger story. Her bringing the characters together again as the final book, Edith Jackson, ends leaves the reader with a vision of the three young women and where they are in their journey. It also reinforces the sense of the trilogy as a single story exploring the ongoing process of growth.
Lost innocence, courage, choice, and responsibility are recurring concepts throughout. Imposed images of acceptability (light skin, "good" hair, "decent" family) are sources of conflict, sometimes threats, in the development process. The bonds between women (sister to sister; older woman to younger woman, friend to friend) are a special kind of communion that Guy explores. The special challenges that confront the outsider are also graphically revealed.
Published in 1973, The Friends is Guy's most critically praised work. It is a richly complex examination of a young girl's coming of age and the evolution of a special friendship. Phylissia Cathy and Edith Jackson are the friends of the title, two teenagers who come to share a strong friendship after a particularly stormy beginning. Culture, class, and language separate the girls like the ocean that separates the places of their birth. Fifteen-year-old Edith Jackson is Harlem born and bred. She is scruffy, bold, all-but-parentless, and poor. By contrast, fourteen-year-old island-born Phylissia, the protagonist, is bright, proud, and well cared for, but struggling to survive her new home in Harlem, her oppressive West Indian father, and her status as an outsider. Each is in need of a friend, but family, class, and Phylissia's insecurities dictate against it.
The friendship is played out in the heart of Harlem. A social pecking order reigns here, and as the immigrant newcomer, Phylissia is near the bottom. She is the target of ongoing abuse by classmates—led by the "big-breasted" Beulah—who despises her because she is different: prim, proper, West Indian, and academically prepared. She is rebuffed by her neighbor Marian and other children of Harlem's doctors and lawyers, who find neither her academic strengths nor her reserved behavior compensation for the fact that she "talks funny," is plain, and apparently is not as well off as they. But she is befriended by Edith, the shabbiest student in the class—one of the "ragamuffins" with whom her father has forbidden her to associate, below even Phylissia in Harlem's pecking order. Phylissia initially rejects Edith's offer of friendship—Phylissia's only such offer—simply because of Edith's very evident poverty.
This apparently doomed relationship is saved, however, by Phylissia's need for Edith, "the one girl she could use," to protect her from her hostile classmates who tease, taunt, and physically attack her. Thus Phylissia finally turns to Edith as a last resort.
Their fragile and essentially one-sided relationship begun, Edith shares all of New York with newcomer Phylissia, including shoplifted candy and "free" subway rides. She also shares her family—four younger sisters, a brother, and her broken father—with whom she lives in a shabby one-room walk-up. Phylissia, on the other hand, shares only stories of her "beautiful mother," her "glamorous sister," and her "ogre of a father with his fabulous restaurant," because she is too embarrassed by Edith's poverty and too afraid of her father's reaction to bring Edith home to meet them.
This sham friendship begun in the spring develops over the course of the summer. It is not an idyllic summer—Edith's father disappears and Phylissia's mother becomes ill—but the two girls share their hardships, secrets, and good times. The experiences forge a special bond between them. Edith has become Phylissia's secret friend, her best and only friend, although Phylissia continues to scorn Edith privately for her ragamuffin status.
Disaster results when Phylissia finally brings Edith home. Phylissia, who has camouflaged her ambivalent attitudes toward her friend throughout their summer together, launches a vicious, although indirect, verbal attack upon her friend, brutally humiliating her in front of the Cathys. The friendship shattered, Phylissia is left alone. The loss of Edith marks the beginning of a cycle of loss. Her mother's illness worsens and she dies. Phylissia's always distant relationship with her father deteriorates even further. The final third of the novel deals with Phylissia's lone struggle with guilt, grief, her father, and a developing sense of herself.
Guy compellingly captures the powerful forces of race, sex, and class that are at work in the girls' lives: race and sex uniting them in shared experiences, class driving them apart. Guy parallels the two young women in many ways. She has noted that they are fictional counterparts: Phylissia representating the family, and Edith, the orphan's experience. Their experiences as young girls growing up create a special bond between them, but their cultural and class differences reveal them in counterpoint. Guy uses contrast powerfully here, enhancing our sense of both young women, their relationship, and the forces that affect them.
Sisters in color, both girls suffer abuse because of their color. This conflict is a complex phenomenon for Phylissia especially. Both girls encounter the rebuffs of the color- and class-conscious children of Harlem's black professionals and of their teacher. Their racist white teacher, Ms. Lass, having taunted one of the quietest girls in the room about the oil in her hair, finally turns her racist assault upon the whole class declaring, "You come to school like pigs! Greasy, oily, filthy, pigs!" But Phylissia also confronts this conflict at home. Her father, she is aware, prefers "light-skinned women" and considers her ugly because she is plain and brown. She feels set apart because of her "plainness" in a "good-looking family." These interlocking conflicts are new to her; on the island her plainness did not matter, and racial shame such as she has been made to feel at school was not part of her upbringing.
True sisters also by virtue of their sex, the girls are tied into certain narrow role expectations. Poverty-stricken Edith is a catch-as-catch-can student destined for a life of domestic work. Phylissia, on the other hand, is cowed by her class-conscious, sexist, hypocritical West Indian father who demands that she be a prim, proper young lady and a good student and housekeeper while assuming that she will be sly, lascivious, lazy, and rude. Vacillating between over-protectiveness and distrust, his solution is to confine his daughters to the house when they are not at school.
Phylissia's family's background and expectations are also a source of isolation. Because she talks and behaves differently, she is verbally and physically abused and under pressure to conform to the accepted behavioral code. Since in physical appearance she is indistinguishable from her black American classmates, the differences in her language and behavior seem all the more unacceptable to them. And unlike her pretty sister, Ruby, her problems are not ameliorated by her looks, which to all except Edith, are unacceptable.
Yet class is a wedge driving the friends apart. Calvin, Phylissia's father, disdains those living in poverty. He prides himself upon not being like the poor black Americans he warns his daughters against:
You think I bring you to this man's country and set you down in good surroundings so you can make friends of these little ragamuffins. Just let me catch you with that girl again. And not only she, but any other one that looks like she. See what happens to that fast little tail of yours. It will be so hot with fire that you will pray for the gates of hell!
The irony that in a riot the police make no distinction between him and other blacks—swinging their nightsticks on West Indian and black American alike—is lost on him.
Phylissia is her father's daughter in this respect. Accepting her father's and society's standards of beauty and worth, she salves her personal hurt over rejection with a fantasy built around her father's braggadocio and ideas from stories she has read. She becomes the rejecter rather than the rejected. She initially rejects Edith and then uses her, while longing for the friendship of "round, brown, pretty" Marion with the "two long, long braids." But even when a true bond develops out of her sham friendship with Edith, her biases continue to surface. When the seriousness of her mother's illness compels her to seek Edith's help and counsel, her traitorous thoughts reveal her true feelings:
I found that as much as I appreciated her, was glad to see her, I was still uncomfortable sitting next to her on the bus…. I had forgotten how shabby she looked. I kept telling myself that perhaps it was because I was dressed so much differently—but then of course the reason I had never invited Edith home was because she was so "shabby."
Although friendship and family relationships are both important themes in The Friends, self-reconciliation is the central focus here. The three-part structure of the novel hinges naturally around three broad blocks of action: the development of the unlikely friendship, the enactment of Phylissia's personal protective fantasy, and the process of self-revelation. Each part serves a distinctive function but is seamlessly woven into the whole.
The first-person perspective gives us an immediate, intimate sense of the protagonist, Phylissia. Her every thought and emotion are revealed to us. She is our source of information about people and events in her world, which we get, of course, with her particular biases. Guy richly and economically builds upon this sense of intimacy between reader and protagonist to set the stage for events to come. In chapters 3 and 4 of part 1, she subtly establishes a basis for the tensions Phylissia experiences at home and at school in her immigrant background, while contrasting her world with that of Edith. She also artfully uses dialogue and action to create a more rounded view of characters and family dynamics.
Guy's handling of dialogue is special. She is as adept at capturing Edith's brassy street lingo as at rendering the Cathy family's rhythmic West Indian speech. Most important, however, she uses dialogue to reveal two characters—Mrs. Cathy and a family friend, Mr. Charles—as objective commentators against which Phylissia's perspective can be balanced. The shape of future conflict is foreshadowed in both content and the presentation of the conversation. In reasoned voices Mrs. Cathy and Mr. Charles discuss Phylissia's problems at school while Phylissia attempts to follow the intertwining dialogue. She strains to hear the voices of her mother and Mr. Charles over the loud, materialistic, and bigoted arguments with which her father is haranguing his cousin Frank. The presentation is almost theatrical, creating a powerful tableau through the content and juxtaposition of the dialogue:
Mother: "Children can be cruel."
I heard Mr. Charles answer: "Unhappily yes. Children are by far the most cruel of animals…."
Loud in the background Calvin: "He made a smart man and he made a fool!"
I strained to give my full attention to Mr. Charles: "animals imitate their elders…." Cousin Frank in the background: "I just want to know what category he put you in, Calvin…."
Mr. Charles: "… animals are checked by instinct. But children must move past instinct to reason…."
Calvin: "… but you make joke, man…. You must see the money I make…. Two years in this country I opened up my first restaurant…."
Mr. Charles: "But at her age, children are still in a state of confusion…."
Calvin: "I'll open another and another…. I ain't like these damn fool black people…."
The technique subtly but dramatically furthers the unfolding plot by revealing character and setting an emotional tone for the novel. The result is a kind of four-part exchange. Calvin's blustery, emotional interjections seem to challenge the concerned and rational observations of Mrs. Cathy and Mr. Charles. The entire episode as seen from Phylissia's view gives a feel of the "state of confusion" Mr. Charles targeted as a part of the growth experience. It is also especially effective in conveying a sense of Calvin Cathy's character and the general family dynamics.
In Phylissia's brutal attack upon Edith, however, character is shown through action. Unaware of her own motivation, Phylissia lashes out at her sister for her calm and cordial acceptance of Edith, making it clear in her attack how much she disdains "the poor and dirty [who] went around with socks filled with holes and runover shoes." She is joined in the attack by her father. Arriving home unexpectedly, he verbally abuses Edith and orders her out of his home. Guy captures the parallel attitudes of father and daughter not only in the hostile, defensive dialogue but in the similarity of mannerisms as well. Guy describes Phylissia in her anger as "biting down on [her] jaws so that the skin rippled over them" (107). In the wrenching scene in which Calvin Cathy is coerced by his wife into an acknowledgment of the doctor's prognosis that she is dying, Calvin's reactions are strikingly similar. Crying out his agony, he "wanted now to fall, to hold onto something for support; instead he bit down so hard that the skin rippled over his jaws" (89).
Calvin Cathy is consistently depicted as a bold and blustery character given to braggadocio. Yet Guy sketches his background lightly, choosing to let his words and actions, and the views of others, tell his story. Once again it is Mrs. Cathy who provides the balancing view of Calvin Cathy. After his humiliation of Edith, his wife's reminder that there had once been a time when he, like Edith, did not "go with the furniture" in a "well-to-do" home is all the more telling. The sense all along that Calvin's bouts of overstatement are tolerated—even understood by his family and friends—suddenly fits. Although Calvin does not change, he is a more sympathetic character. Guy's method of characterization gives a strong sense of the deep-rooted insecurity that shapes his behavior and cements his self-image.
Throughout the novel, the sensible voices of Mrs. Cathy and Mr. Charles offer us a more objective view of people and events, subtly focusing us on the central issues. Taking Phylissia to task after Edith's humiliation, Mrs. Cathy acknowledges her own culpability in the making of that shattering event. She also captures Guy's perspective on some of the problems of parenthood.
If I had not been so caught up with all of my problems—my fears—I might have been able to see … what you were going through…. I never allowed myself to see that living in the same household with such a person as your father, it was natural that you copy some of his ways…. today was the first time I allowed myself to see that the things we love and accept, the things we value, make us parents our children's problems.
She voices as well the challenge of responsibility that Guy sees as a part of growing out of the inno- cence of childhood into maturity. Even after her death, a spirit—which is by all evidence that of Mrs. Cathy—haunts Phylissia's sleep, prodding her toward that all-important revelation of her own character and responsibility.
The seasonal symbolism in The Friends does double duty as a measure of the girls' developing friendship and an objective correlative to Phylissia's changing emotional state. The friendship begun in spring is shattered in the late fall leading into winter. Mrs. Cathy dies shortly thereafter. That winter is, for Phylissia, a time of silent struggle—with grief, physical sickness, and the sickness of guilt that has been her mother's unusual legacy. Phylissia also struggles with her father. Fear of him has kept her from going to her friend during the long dark months of that winter. But she has also discovered that he is fallible. He has unjustly humiliated Ruby, frightening away the young man she is interested in because of a harmless goodnight kiss. Since that time the girls have been all but imprisoned in the apartment. Phylissia, who in her innocence has always thought her father was right, cannot understand how he could be so wrong.
With this questioning comes a growing sense that his powers as a parent are less binding upon her; the struggle becomes overt. The fragile self-image, which she has measured against his yardstick, and her sense of her own place in the world have come unanchored. Even her body is deceptive. It has begun to change.
I was changing. I felt the change big in me…. I now hated school, hated people—everybody except Ruby. My thoughts were disordered…. since my illness I had developed rapidly. My breasts were fuller than Ruby's now, so were my legs and thighs. I had even grown an inch or two taller.
It is this "new" Phylissia who steps into the spring with an urge to do "death-defying things." These include skipping school, staying out late, and meeting a boy in the park—a boy who finds her attractive—all in defiance of Calvin. The price of this new boldness is her father's determination to return the girls to the island. Phylissia is unperturbed by this. What she finds truly disturbing is her first visit to her father's "glamorous" restaurant, which turns out to be merely a local greasy spoon.
The reality of her father's restaurant is literally sickening for Phylissia, a distortion of what she had envisioned in her self-flattering fantasies. It is in the fevered disorder of her thoughts after visiting the restaurant that she finally comes to grips with how her own fairy tale image of herself, and her attempts to maintain it, had brought great pain to her friend.
I had seen things the way I wanted them to be. I had wanted to be an unhappy princess with a cruel king of a father. I had wanted to be the daughter of the owner of a big restaurant. Perhaps it was because the kids in school had been so hard on me. I didn't know. But I had wanted to be rich, to live in luxury, so that I could feel superior to them—to people like Edith…. I was the fraud.
In the newness of spring Phylissia has come full cycle. Facing her own false image, she sees her insecurities and cruelty. Fired by a need to go to her friend, she defies her father's orders not to leave the apartment. She finds Edith grieving over the death of her baby sister, Ellen, and facing confinement in the Institution (an orphanage) with her other sisters. For the first time, Phylissia truly commits herself to her friend, praising her for being there for her family and pledging to visit and write while she is in the Institution. All the while she is aware that the future of that friendship, and of her relationship with her father, depends on her ability to forge some degree of communication with him.
In a final confrontation Phylissia stands up for the friendship and makes an impassioned bid to be allowed to remain in New York instead of returning to the island. She also makes a plea for a new relationship with her father. The novel's ending embodies both pain and hope. Calvin Cathy's inability to respond with any warmth toward his daughter is painful. He can only manage to brusquely charge her to put her clothes away and straighten the room. The girls, however, are allowed to remain in Harlem with their father. Although his verbal response is painfully characteristic, his tacit response belies the unemotional image he exhibits. His decision to keep his daughters with him hints at some hope for change.
The distinctiveness of The Friends lies in the Cathy family's bicultural background and the effective contrasting and comparing of Phylissia's West Indian American growth experience with that of black American Edith. Set against the backdrop of Harlem it allows us a look at the dynamics of Harlem life—the variety of life-styles, the inter- and intraracial color barriers, the class and cultural separations, and the subtle and overt perils of poverty and fear. These interlocking conflicts and circumstances and the char- acters' unique outsider status are sources from which incidents arise almost organically. Their evolution and/or resolution are intricately tied to the growth and development of the protagonist.
As the first novel in the series of three involving the Cathy sisters and Edith Jackson, The Friends tells its own story while laying the emotional and experiential groundwork for the other two novels. A trail of clues throughout the book foreshadows the major issues and conflicts in the growth cycle on which the trilogy focuses. These clues are interwoven to structure the complex meaning of The Friends while highlighting the connecting thematic strand that unifies the three books: a young girl's growth to womanhood. In The Friends, Cousin Frank's sarcastic response to Calvin's rough treatment of Ruby's friend Orlando—"What you want her to kiss? A girl?" (155)—ironically presages events in Ruby. In the same context, Mr. Charles's calm insistence that Ruby has arrived at the age when she can do as she pleases and his call for Calvin to allow both girls "a broader life" also prepares the reader for the central issues in Ruby. Similarly, the evolution of Edith's life in The Friends from tough, street-smart schoolgirl to drop-out-turned-domestic worker in order to ward off the Institution foretells the kind of self-eroding conflicts that Edith confronts in the final novel, Edith Jackson.
The Friends is an emotionally intense novel charged with Guy's memories of her own experiences as a West Indian child coming of age in Harlem—proud of her roots yet attacked for them, bright and spirited but frustrated by the limitations that her race and her physical features put on her. The memories are fresh and real. She vividly recalls the loneliness, the isolation, and the shame "because in trying to be part of the gang I've been cruel." It is perhaps this universal emotional truth that so effectively holds the novel together, creating a work that touches the reader's own memories of the pains and joys of growing up.
While The Friends is the story of Phylissia Cathy's first tentative steps into adolescence, Ruby explores her elder sister Ruby's turbulent initiation into the sphere of courtship and love relationships. Here, too, the Cathys' bicultural heritage shapes itself as a larger-than-life obstacle in the growth cycle, the focus shifting from Phylissia's early adolescent years to eighteen-year-old Ruby's emerging adulthood. Breaking free of the family circle to embrace new, independent relationships is a dilemma frequently targeted in young adult literature, but the conflicts surrounding breaking away from the family orbit are exacerbated for Ruby Cathy by the loss of her mother, the isolation imposed upon her by her tyrannical father, and her cultural differences. Ruby, who needs to "find herself, a likeness to herself, a response to her needs, her age, an answer to her loneliness" (47), finds an unlikely answer in the person of her compelling, enigmatic, and elegant classmate, Daphne Dupre. Arrogant, self-centered, and sometimes harsh, Daphne is the catalyst for change in Ruby's life, reordering the constellation of important people in her universe.
Ruby's universe is small and lonely. Except for Consuela—an outsider like herself—her former school friends have rejected her. (The deference of both girls to their racist teacher, the result of cultural backgrounds mandating respect for elders, is interpreted as "Uncle Tom" behavior—an unforgivable sin.) Her sister is absorbed in books and writing letters to her friend Edith, while her father, preoccupied with work, takes time only to frighten off any young men who show an interest in her. Until Daphne enters her life, Ruby has felt alone except for a solitary oak, standing like a sentinel outside her window. In Daphne Ruby finds an answer to her loneliness—a new existence outside of the family sphere; a new name, Bronzie; and a special place, Daphne's red-lighted room. The friendship develops into love between the two girls. Ruby's father, however, is not a man who will accept or understand his daughter's need for Daphne.
When initial attempts to conceal the relationship fail, a tense emotional tug-of-war ensues between the demanding father and an equally demanding Daphne. Ruby is caught in the middle. The tug-of-war is initially fought with Calvin's subtle efforts to control Ruby's comings and goings and to limit the time she can devote to her new relationship on one hand, and Daphne's attempts to have Ruby spend time with her, on the other. But when a subterfuge designed to allow the girls an entire weekend together fails, the war escalates, and Calvin physically punishes Ruby. The episode only strengthens the forbidden romance, despite the disapproval of both Mr. Cathy and Mrs. Dupre.
Ultimately the relationship ends in the natural course of events. With the rapid approach of the close of the school year, Daphne's plans for college and the future collide with the teenage romance. Ruby, who has no plans that have not been built around Daphne, is devastated. In the cliff-hanging climax she attempts to commit suicide rather than face the end of the relationship. She is saved by her bewildered father who makes a naive but genuine effort to help her forget the shattered love affair.
Ruby generated no small amount of discussion, the controversy largely centering on the book's focus on a love affair between two young women. But the novel's meaning and distinctiveness lie not in any lesbian or bisexual overtones but in the uniqueness of the two young protagonists. Guy's concern in the novel is the development of the characters. Almost polar opposites by virtue of family backgrounds and experiences, they are briefly and explosively linked by their common need for love and acceptance. Although the conflict between family and lover is explored, Guy's real focus is on the growth and development of the two young women. Much has been made of Ruby's female lover, but the major conflict in the love relationship has little to do with Daphne's gender. The conflict on which Guy focuses this love story would exist no matter who, or what sex, Ruby's lover might be. For the problem arises out of the ages of the protagonists and their family relationships, cultural backgrounds, and unique personality traits.
The love relationship between the two young women is very much Guy's kind of plot structure. It is a reversal, a commonplace event turned about. But it is not a casually chosen structure. The romance between the two young women allows Guy to explore the growing need for nonfamilial relationships—one of the central developmental issues young people face—from a distinctively female point of view, looking especially at how family dynamics, cultural background, and individual personality traits influence development. Daphne's growth, although not the primary focus here, serves as a point of comparison in looking at the major developmental issues the two young women confront so differently.
From its emotionally charged beginning to Ruby's climactic suicide attempt, her feelings and emotions are the novel's central focus. In the opening scene, Guy paints Ruby's world in shades of gray, with only an occasional splash of color. The imagery sets the novel's tone but also establishes a firm groundwork for Guy's ongoing characterization of Ruby. In the evocative opening passage—"Loneliness like a vapor wafted from her bowels … slithered along her throat … preventing its erupting into screams, hysteria, torrents of tears" (1)—Ruby's emotional state is firmly established. She is alone and lonely. The truth of her life in Harlem is captured in the scene she surveys from her window—Marion moving, Orlando passing her by:
Friendships were like that in this country—fluid as water, fragile as those modern buildings which so often replaced the graceful, lovingly constructed old houses—quickly erected and as easily destroyed…. Ruby rested her gaze on the oak tree which grew like a sentinel outside her apartment … gnarled and determined, sparse but aggressively promising…. The day darkened…. Ruby was about to turn when she spied a pair of broad shoulders through the branches of the trees…. Ruby knew who it was…. I used to like him but now I don't—I used to like him very much. But now I definitely don't.
The tone is set, the character base laid, and the outline of impending conflict subtly sketched. Guy literally moves us through the novel on Ruby's emotional swings. Page after page of the third-person narrative is punctuated with Ruby's anxiety-filled reveries and all-but-hysterical thoughts. Ruby even takes a degree of pride in her theatrical flair for expressing her fear and anxieties: "I feel so stupid … so stupid…. I didn't use to be…. I didn't…. Oh God!…. What am I to do? I am like a desolate island in a stormy sea…. She liked that simile. ‘A desolate island in a stormy sea’" (35).
The symbolic use of the seasons of Ruby's sentinel tree underscores the passage of time as the eighteen-year-old moves into the "broader life" that Mr. Charles envisioned for her in The Friends. Her move outside the sphere of family into the world of friends and love relationships is aptly set in the time of the buds "swollen with impatience to leave although it was barely spring" (4). The imagery Guy uses in these early pages subtly and effectively projects Ruby's sensitivity, her fragility, her lack of experience, and her need for someone.
Daphne, "of the smooth tan skin, large white teeth … black shoulder length hair, colorful silk shirts and tweeds" (15) is the catalyst for the new Ruby. Superior in all things, both physically and intellectually, she uses her gifts to her own ends, eschewing tradition and propriety and evoking reluctant admiration even from those who dislike her. Young, proud, and self-directed, she has been unalterably marked by her father's accidental death. She is obsessed with care, caution, intellect, and controlled instincts. She is adamant that she will, at all costs, avoid death on a "hummer" (a pointless accident) and remain always "cool, calm, collected, poised, sophisticated, refined," and, of course, intelligent.
Ruby's intellect and spirit blossom under Daphne's care and tutelage, but Calvin Cathy proves to be an equally powerful force in his daughter's life. In Calvin, Guy has created a fully consistent character. Towering over his family, both literally and figuratively, he keeps his daughters at arm's length from himself, yet allows them no space for other relationships. He threatens rather than talks; inspects rather than interacts; and suspects rather than respects his daughters. Yet loved by both girls, he is a powerful force in their lives.
Guy captures the delicate maneuvers of father and daughter in the smallest detail as they attempt to preserve some semblance of their old relationship—Ruby to preserve her privacy, and Calvin simply to maintain control. But the battle is joined from the time Calvin and Daphne first meet. The first half of the novel focuses on the emotional tug-of-war in which Ruby is caught. True to her theme, Guy evinces this battle of wills through its impact on Ruby.
Calvin spies and he plots, controlling his daughter indirectly at first. The impact of Calvin's implacable will is felt even in his absence. Ruby's anxiety is palpable. The ringing of the phone shatters one carefree Saturday afternoon spent at Daphne's apartment, triggering the specter of disapproving Calvin and spoiling the afternoon's fun. Ruby's anxieties about her father's disfavor cause the strong-willed Daphne to exert even more pressure: "What are we, prisoners?…. Ruby Cathy, your step toward freedom was certainly limited. You must stop this nonsense! You are not a child. You must tell your father" (89). Guy infuses the treatment of this war for Ruby with some light touches, and the interactions of father and daughter are powerfully captured through Guy's deft use of dialogue. Both father and daughter are prone to hyperbole that is often both humorous and revealing. A burnt meal causes Calvin to declare hysterically, "Oh, Go-od!…. You burning me house down…. I leave the house one minute next the place going up" (59).
The quips and antics of Phylissia also lighten the tension. Miss Effie is a minor character brought in by Calvin to supervise/spy on the girls. Her futile designs on Calvin infuriate Phylissia and prompt some of Phylissia's most creative and humorous verbal and tactical assaults. Guy also effectively uses Miss Effie's behavior as a seriocomic parallel to Ruby's fawning behavior toward Daphne. Foreshadowing the fate of Ruby, Miss Effie is summarily banished by Calvin when a nightgown, purposefully placed on Calvin's bed by Phylissia, convinces Calvin that Miss Effie is invading his house.
The depth and range of Ruby's emotions are effectively revealed throughout these early chapters. Guy keeps the tension drawn taut until the pivotal moment of Ruby's dramatic demonstration of compassion for her vitriolic teacher during a fire drill at school.
Guy's powerful description of the crippled teacher's unaided struggle to grasp her cane during the drill is masterfully done, capturing the seething cauldron of hate and racism that is part of her characters' lives while bringing all the tensions of the first part of the novel to a crescendo.
No one moved. The teacher's torment mesmerized them. Even if there had been a fire, they could not have moved. Waiting to see her perish, they would have perished with her, so tightly did she bind them with her hatred…. For Ruby, it was the most painful moment she ever experienced, the most shameful.
As Ruby affirms her instinctively caring nature and steps out of the line to help the tormented teacher, she forever seals her fate with her classmates and seems to doom her relationship with Daphne.
Relaxing the dramatic tension at last, Guy uses natural imagery to evoke the unwinding emotional tension, the sadness, the giving in to loss. Through the living room window Ruby can see her special tree,
heavy with leaves … bent under the heavy rain, its fragrance pleasing, yet achingly nostalgic…. Everything happened so quickly. A short time ago, it had barely begun to bud. Was it so short a time? I hadn't known Daphne then … not really known her…. now…. I feel for her so deeply…. I can no longer see her.
Ironically, it is Ruby's demonstration of compassion that subtly changes Daphne, cementing rather than destroying the relationship as Ruby had feared
Throughout the novel, the third-person perspective allows the reader a kind of rounded, objective view of Ruby, but Guy artfully controls what we know and when we know it. She begins building toward the revelation of Ruby's true character early. Her imagery in descriptions of Ruby in part 1 hints that there is another side to her loving, compassionate nature. When Mr. Charles describes Ruby as a kitten needing lots of love and attention, her father differs with him: "Kitten? Is what you call it? Calvin scoffed. You mean cat, ain't you, Charles? You ever see a cat playing with a mouse? They play, they play … then all of a sudden … they hold and hold and they don't let go" (27).
More telling than the observations of unsympathetic Calvin, however, are Ruby's own thoughts. She remembers how she had attended her mother during her illness: she had "cared and cared … surrounded her with love," and had resented her mother's attentions to Phylissia on that last night before she died. This is a reflection of the darker side of Guy's vision at work, her ability to see the underside, the "grotesque," in commonplace events and actions. This other side of Ruby's nature is the key to a real understanding of her character, which emerges in the last half of the novel. Guy structures this revelation of character through the cumulative power of description joined by action, dialogue, and the careful handling of the device of space.
What Guy makes clear in imagery and action is that Ruby's need for validation through others is the compelling force in her life. Ruby's words to Daphne are illustrative: "I am blank, Daphne. Nothing is written on me until I feel for someone like I feel for you. When you leave I become blank again" (118). Ruby's statement is not simply an expression of love; it is an honest assertion of an operating dependency in all her relationships. Phylissia's sarcastic comparison of Ruby with Chaucer's constant Griselda is apropos (132). Love for Ruby consists less of sharing than of needing, and the need is endless. Rather than risk loss because of disagreement or disapproval, she gives, adjusts, accepts, defines herself in her relationships with others. The startling differences in the personalities of Daphne and Ruby enhance the impact of this revelation.
It is this dependency of Ruby's and, concomitantly, Daphne's singlemindedness about her future plans that spell inevitable doom for the relationship (rather than anything to do with Daphne's sex). It is ultimately a question of space—room in which to grow and change. Guy expresses this conflict both literally and figuratively. The love affair that began in Daphne's red-lighted room flourishes within small confines. The girls experience much happiness in the room guarded by the red light or behind the locked doors of Ruby's small room. But Ruby is not bold enough to allow the relationship to move beyond these small spaces.
The girls plot to spend one "beautiful, free weekend" together, safe from Calvin. He has reluctantly given his daughters permission to visit their friend Edith in Peekskill, thus providing the perfect cover. When Calvin discovers that Ruby has spent the holiday weekend with Daphne rather than chaperoning her sister on her trip to Peekskill, he publicly beats her. He struggles with anger and fear. Despite all his ploys—the "family dinners," Miss Effie, and his spying—he has been unable to command his daughter's complete loyalty, devotion, or obedience. He does not confront the full meaning of her disobedience—her womanhood and sexuality. Banishing her to her room, he unwittingly sends her into the sympathetic arms of Daphne.
It is Mrs. Dupre, Daphne's mother—concerned for her own daughter's safety given Calvin's volatile temper—who confronts the situation head on, expressing her disapproval of the relationship and effectively putting Daphne's room off-limits to the girls. Although she has played the part of ally in their efforts to delude Calvin, her own demeanor and, finally, her words challenge her daughter (and Ruby) to look honestly at the relationship: "If Ruby feels like putting up with [the situation] that is her business. She's old enough to make her own decisions. What makes you the great know-it-all? What makes you the one who must think for us all? To decide for us all?" (145). As the school year draws to a close, the girls confront Mrs. Dupre's challenge in their discussions-turned-arguments over personal plans and plans for the relationship.
Symbolically, the critical turn in the relationship takes place in Ruby's locked room. Guy displays the unique twists of her imagination as a surprise birthday celebration for Daphne in Ruby's bedroom collides, disastrously, with a similar celebration for Calvin taking place in the living room. By the time of the fateful birthday celebration, the locked door has, ironically, become a symbol of Daphne's presence. Even Phylissia has become conditioned to assume Daphne's presence behind the closed door: "‘Why else would the door be locked?’ she asks," (154). And it is in this symbolic usage of the rooms that the problem with the relationship is graphically demonstrated.
The privacy, security, and respite from loneliness that the confined spaces of the girls' rooms have offered have, ironically, now become imprisoning, allowing neither the girls nor the relationship room for growth. Daphne's growth—her plans for college and the future—has not been matched by similar growth on Ruby's part. Ruby is unwilling or unable to risk her security for the space necessary to grow. On the night of the birthday parties, Ruby's lack of courage to grow is symbolized by her unwillingness to open her bedroom door and expose Daphne to her father and his guests. Her refusal to open the door dooms the relationship.
Guy's description of Daphne's escape down a sheet out of Ruby's bedroom window echoes the stages of development of the relationship: an initial tense tug-of-war, followed by an abrupt relaxation of tension:
Ruby thrust Phylissia aside and with a quick movement caught the rapidly unwinding sheet, twisting so that it wound around her body in one turn…. Bracing her hands on the sides of the frame, … she stood as the sheet drew tighter, tighter around her waist…. Suddenly, inexplicably, the pulling stopped, the strain was gone.
Daphne's close brush with death on a hummer spells the end of the relationship, except for the final declaration. We are prepared for the last climactic events of the novel by Ruby's escalating emotionality. Her mood and demeanor, indeed the circumstances leading to the novel's climax, are like a flashback to Ruby's lonely, emotional state in the novel's opening scene. The "flashback" is a reconstruction of the opening scene—the emotions (the loneliness, the loss, the denial), the imagery, even the narrative cadence—but in a compressed form: "Fear came rushing back…. Ruby pictured herself looking out her window at the lonely tree, the singular street, the disinterested passersby. She tasted the ashes of her love, thick on the back of her tongue. How can I let her go? I shall never let her go" (172).
Although Daphne is sometimes seen as an unsympathetic character, her brutality in ending the relationship is both in character and understandable in light of Ruby's resistance to confronting her own selfishness. Daphne's blunt declaration of the end of the relationship occurs, appropriately, in Ruby's unlocked room:
You want to be loved. You need to be loved. You have to be loved—by everybody…. No one must escape your need for love…. we have had our time…. we have been good friends. We enjoyed each other. It is over. I want to live, and there is no life in clinging, pretending.
Ruby's suicide attempt, the question of her future relationships, indeed the resolution of the novel have been controversial. Regina Williams, in a lengthy review in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, finds the novel full of "mixed messages." She is disturbed by Calvin's inviting Orlando to visit Ruby immediately after the suicide attempt; she feels it is just one element of the book's sexism. She further asserts that although Ruby's personality problems were the story's central element, they remain unresolved at the conclusion of the novel.2 Williams is not impressed by Ruby.
The answers to Williams's criticisms can be found in a consideration of Guy's style and characterization. After preventing his daughter's suicide, Calvin's response, as demonstrated by his invitation to Orlando, is true to his nature. It is typically, simplistically, and—yes—sexistly Calvin. Yet his sending for Orlando has a positive side: it is tantamount to capitulation, to an acknowledgment that his suspiciousness and possessiveness were wrong. He is not sensitive enough to see that (as Williams points out) Ruby's unresolved problem is her dependency, but we can hope, as Ruby Dee has suggested, that Ruby will "find her way."3 Ruby's response to Orlando's arrival—"maybe tomorrow"—is openended; she is not hurrying to fasten her dependency upon him. Time is required for Ruby to sort out the events of the past months, her own feelings and emotions. We can be certain that the relationship with Daphne has been central to Ruby's growth and development. Her thoughts clearly indicate this: Daphne "was so important to me … my life…. yet she said I was selfish, … selfish … selfish" (182). Guy makes it clear that the nature of Ruby's relationships in the future is purely a matter of her own personal development.
The same is true of Ruby's sexual orientation, which is equally a matter of personal development. As Judith Mitchell in an ALAN Review article noted: "If one had to sum up Guy's attitude toward homosexuality from this story, one would conclude from the internal evidence that she believes the need to love and be loved is paramount. To assuage that hunger, young people may fall in love within or outside their own gender. What determines the success or failure of the relationships may have more to do with personality than with being male or female."4
The book has been described as "a very sensitive novel in which adolescent homosexuality is viewed as nothing so frightening, but perhaps just a way-step toward maturity."5The concept of relationships of any kind as steps toward maturity is appealing and in line with the overall theme of the trilogy. In this respect it is intriguing to consider Guy's imagery in describing Daphne's room—Ruby's haven from her lonely, emotionally turbulent existence. The room is located down "a long darkened hallway from where she could see the sun lighting the drawn shades of the living room. [It is] before the living room at a corner where the hall turns sharply. [Inside there is a] second door, closed off by heavy-wine colored drapes, matching the drawn draperies at the window which obviously lead back into the L-shaped hall" (39). One would suppose that there are other rooms (relationships) along that long dark hallway leading to the sun-lit living room. The imagery is resonant with the sense of journey—through the darkness of innocence and inexperience toward the sun of maturity.
The culmination of Guy's trilogy is the novel Edith Jackson. Phylissia's devoted companion in The Friends, Edith takes center stage here. Although she has shared some of her important developmental years with the Cathy sisters, her experience has been marked by the harshness of her world, growing up poor and without parental support. In Edith Jackson Guy explores the last of the three elements of reconciliation—reconciliation-with-the-world. Making choices and assuming responsibility for self are Edith's particular challenges, but in the context of the trilogy, reconciliation-with-the-world subsumes awareness of self and relationships with others.
The novel continues the story of Edith Jackson's life begun in The Friends. Although structurally there are three distinct blocks of action in this work as there are three and two, respectively, in The Friends and Ruby, it seems significant that each of the three here is designated as a book rather than as a "part," as they are in the other novels. The terminology subtly reinforces the sense of the three novels as episodes in one larger story. There is an implication that all things will come together here as we follow Edith's life from early spring through year's end. In book 1, "Foster Family," Edith and her three sisters are in a foster home in Peekskill, New York; her baby sister, Ellen, has died of malnutrition and her brother, Randy, has been shot. By cajolery, threats, and bullying the social worker, Mrs. Brown, Edith has managed to keep her dwindling family together through several foster placements and months of waiting in the Institution. Edith optimistically believes their new home in Peekskill is an environment in which her sisters will have a chance to grow, but the unfolding events in the novel prove just the opposite.
Life in Peekskill disintegrates a little at a time. Edith's sister Minnie grows close to a white schoolmate. Bessie withdraws into fantasies and lies. Suzie simply builds her ego and existence on the life of her sister Minnie. Edith feels responsible for all of them, but also feels more and more shut out. When Bessie disappears with a friend of their foster mother's, life in Peekskill collapses. The girls are returned to the Institution where the family is finally split apart. Left alone and responsible only for herself for the first time, Edith faces the challenges and the perils of choice and self-responsibility.
The book dramatically exposes the culture, consequences, and institutions of poverty through the events in Edith's life. Proceeding more episodically than the earlier books, the novel packs less emotional power than either Ruby or The Friends, but from start to finish Edith's dilemma is vividly realized. She is the target of sexual harassment and inter- and intraracial prejudice. She confronts the very real problems—teen pregnancy and lack of education—that often plague young women in poverty situations, problems that lead almost inevitably to life as wards of the welfare system. As usual, Guy leaves the final resolution of Edith's dilemmas in the open realm of the reader's imagination.
Edith Jackson is the most extensive delineation of the orphan's experience that Guy has produced. Edith's enforced independence owing to her mother's death and her father's absence is an experience Guy knows well. In the novel these special circumstances heighten the protagonist's sense of family responsibility, shape her character, and create personal pitfalls as well. Edith is consumed by feelings of responsibility for her sisters, giving little thought to her own growth and adjustment. Her future seems unimportant compared to her mission: to take care of the children. Years of living a life that has seemed to offer her no other option but that of mother to her siblings has not only foreshortened her perspective on life but narrowed her sense of herself. For Edith there is only duty:
Duty from the time I looked up and saw the world. Duty to cuddle, but never be cuddled. Duty to carry, and never be carried. To change diapers, to wash clothes, to clean, to teach. While that sick old man and sick woman sat around getting sick, sicker, old, older—then dying.
Although Edith's family relationships and the tragedies and successes that befall her sisters are central to the book, this is ultimately a novel about Edith and her growth toward a life of choices and self-responsibility. As an objective commentator in the book, the black lawyer, Mrs. Bates, expresses its central vision: "It's a matter of choice. You cannot plan a life on raising your sisters simply because you have no choice. Nor can they think of living stuck to you because they had no choice." What she describes is an existential situation—choose, shape your life, or become one of the "faceless statistics." Love and responsibility are the great imperatives in Guy's works, and the reader is left with no doubt that they are the ultimate good consequences of individual choice, rather than burdens to which the individual is fated.
Guy's understanding of race, sex, and class and social institutions, life expectations, intraracial conflict, and the blight in the inner city is marshaled to present a realistic treatment of the theme of reconciliation with the world through individual choice. Imagery, irony, perspective, and juxtaposition of action all work together to support thematic development. Guy's use of perspective, for example, confers an important advantage. Edith is a strong-willed and colorful character and her first-person narrative is intense and personal. This point of view enhances the device of diminishing visibility—the loss of will or being expressed in figurative language—which is central to the revelation of theme. Time and the fate of the orphans conspire to pull the small family apart: sister Minnie chooses a white adoptive family; thirteen-year-old Bessie is found dead after disappearing with their foster mother's friend; and Suzy becomes a runaway when she is separated from Edith and placed with a new foster family. By the end of the novel, the Jackson family has literally vanished.
In her customary fashion Guy, through clues, introduces the reader to the skeleton of the conflict in the early pages of the novel. The order, content, and approach to character descriptions in the first chapters are illustrative. The narrative opens with Edith's whimsical description of a handsome, but reluctant, churchgoer; she has dubbed him "Mr. Brown." Edith does not know his identity and there is no indication of his potential significance in her life. Portraits of each of Edith's family members follow. Interestingly, the only common element in the descriptions is her insistent assertion that none of the family is interested in "dudes." In addition, each word portrait is concise, direct, and informative—except one. Only the final description—that of Edith—is different. Rather than a straightforward presentation of herself, she takes a more oblique approach, describing herself only through her description of her sister Suzy.
Suzy looked more like me than the other two did. She was plain, brown-skinned, with short, nappy brown hair that even hair straighteners didn't manage. But Suzy had long legs, and I knew they would push her far higher than my five feet three inches by the time she reached my age, seventeen…. I guess Suzy's looking like me had made me want her to be smart on her own, do things I hadn't been able to, on account of having to look after all of them.
Three characteristics are common to all the descriptions: the other-directedness, the maternal flavor, and the denial of sexual interests. In drawing her character, Guy makes clear the fragile self-image, low expectations, and veiled hopes that are the results of a life of poverty and prejudice. Edith's indirect self-description exemplifies her commitment to family first. She is never central; her needs are never important; her expectations are always tied to her responsibilities to others. Like Ruby, in the second novel, Edith defines herself and her expectations in terms of others. Edith's hopes for her sister Suzy, expressed in her description, reveal the depersonalizing results of this kind of life. Describing Suzy as "Minnie's Shadow"—her existence simply a reflection of sister Minnie—Edith seems to see Suzy as a younger version of herself, a child without a childhood, becoming a caretaker for others.
Edith's double-duty description of Suzy and herself has almost a maternal feeling. She is a surrogate mother for her sisters, and so bound to that commitment that she refuses to think of any other relationship or option; a career, love, marriage, possibly children of her own, do not fit in her life. But her laudatory description of the young man in church, Mr. Brown, as well as her constant assertions of disinterest in dudes, indicates the ambivalence of her feelings. The information and the manner of presentation, along with Guy's rendering of Edith's hard-bitten street language, combine to capture the essence of her character. In this first chapter three intersecting areas of conflict in Edith's life are suggested: self-image, sexuality, and choice. Two of the three—image and sexuality—are a continuation of central themes from the first two books in the trilogy.
Evidence of these three conflicts is apparent early in the family's experiences in Peekskill. The instability of their lives has made maintaining (or developing) a strong sense of self difficult, especially for the younger girls. The home, which they share with two other foster children, is their third placement in three years. Their status as foster children makes them fair game for abuse. Even the local minister, Reverend Jenkins, "rubs down" their pride while he seizes every opportunity to pursue Edith's substance (sexually harassing her) rather than her soul. Rejection erodes their self-confidence: Mother Gilmore is gone and Mother Pratt is gone, while months have been spent waiting for this new "home" with Mother Peters. Guy's ironic use of the title "Mother" for the various foster home hosts is made more ironic by what Edith describes as "the straightening fact" that "with one hundred eighty dollars a head per month, some folks were always willing to take [them] in, especially when she did the caring for [her] sisters and seeing that the work got done" (18). "Mothering" in these circumstances is reduced to a matter of dollars and cents, and even at the going rate the girls have been unable to keep a home.
The "rubbing-down effect," which has always been a part of their poverty-stricken existence, is even more evident in Peekskill, perhaps because of the contrast between the clean, green, safe suburb and their old home in Harlem. The results are inevitable. Bessie compensates with elaborate fantasies about her mother, fantasies that fail to dispel her doubts about her own self-image: "Edy, why you figger Mama had such good hair and ours turned out so nappy?…. She had such pretty hair, she was so light-skinned—and we all come out brown with this bad hair" (29). Although Edith is surprised by the fantasy, she recognizes the source. Those with light skin and soft hair had always been envied and looked up to, while those such as herself were the butt of cruel jokes.
Even more insidious, from Edith's point of view, is the pulling apart of the family. Minnie, serious and studious, is increasingly interested in her new white friend, Judy. Bessie's changing behavior—the lies, the antagonism, the fantasies, and the fuzziness—reveal Edith's diminishing power over her sisters. She is hurt by Bessie's assertion: "You don't know me, see. You sure don't know me." She is sometimes ambivalent too, wanting to "break out, leave the house and family" but feeling compelled to find "a job to make it possible to take care of the kids instead of letting them be shifted around." The lawyer, Mrs. Bates, verbalizes Edith's concerns and doubts but also challenges her.
They [your sisters] will grow, Edith, get big. But raising them? What guarantees that any family of four will march to the same rhythm? Particularly when the one doing the raising hasn't developed a tune?…. You have to know that there are other things you can do…. In this poverty situation, orphans—the abandoned ones—are by far the most vulnerable … meaning they can most easily be used; they melt more easily into that mass of numbers called statistics—faceless statistics. And nothing is worse than being one of the faceless.
The device of diminishing visibility is used skillfully and naturally throughout the novel. The imagery—"rubbing down," "shadowed," "faceless," "invisible,"—is not forced. It is the antithesis of growth and development and naturally expressive of the results of the threats and dilemmas so vividly realized in the story: rejection based on color, class, race, or orphan status; sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, institutionalization, hopelessness. The overwhelming sense of disintegration reflected in the imagery is subtly and progressively reinforced through dialogue and action.
Edith remembers her father—an old man sitting with his back to his children—so overwhelmed by life that he had only the strength to do his duty, "no words, no kisses, just duty." One day he had simply disappeared. She feels her own lack of power and substance in the attitudes of the police when her sister, Bessie, disappears. The words "foster children" trigger a change in their attitude to "instant boredom;" the children are dismissed, all of them, "with a wave of [a] nightstick." Dematerialized in this way, the children feel a need to sit close, to touch bodies, "to prove [their] flesh was real like other folk." Their petty jealousies and occasional racial taunts are forgotten as the children feel their essential kinship. Edith confronts facelessness most devastatingly however, in Mother Peter's lack of response to Bessie's disappearance. Their foster mother's blind acceptance of Bessie's loss, caused by her willing use of the thirteen-year-old to hold on to her friend Uncle Daniels, indicates that she does not think of the girls as real people. With Mother Peter's fantasy life with Uncle Daniels gone, life in Peekskill for the now smaller Jackson family is over, and they are returned to the Institution.
Mrs. Bates and her family, on the other hand, offer Edith a different perspective on life. An orphan herself, Mrs. Bates stands in stark contrast to the other females Edith has encountered. She is clear-eyed, responsible, and in charge of her life. She loves her family but also loves herself; she is respected in the community and returns respect and service to the community. She is a mother, but not the mythic mother Edith has tried to be to her sisters. Mrs. Bates's daughter describes her as a "force," someone to be reckoned with. This is basically in harmony with Mrs. Bates's image of herself. With Edith this forceful woman shares a kind of older sister to younger sister communion, their shared experiences as orphans binding them. Her interest and understanding draw Edith even when she does not like what the older woman has to say; she "had not been sent for. [She] had come" (50). In her role as objective commentator, Mrs. Bates directly, and occasionally heavy-handedly, comments on the important social issues raised in the novel. In the summer, once again back in the Institution, Mrs. Bates's letters are Edith's only concrete anchors to the world outside.
Book 2 of the novel explores the Institution as a halfway house on the way to facelessness in the outside world. The name "Institution," devoid of any specificity, reflects the symbolic nature of this picture of the orphan's experience. Similarly, the names of characters like the social worker, "Mrs. Brown," and even Edith's pet name for the young man she becomes sexually involved with, "Mr. Brown," are names that reveal the characters as symbols rather than individuals—part of the life-style that erodes Edith's sense of self.
The rubbing-down effect is graphically revealed in Guy's description of the Institution. There are no individuals here—only categories of society's wards. There are foundlings, juvenile delinquents, and Edith's special loves, the Institution babies. No expectations are nurtured here; residents simply grow out of the shadow of the Institution into invisibility. Or if they're bright enough or lucky enough, they join the world of real people who make decisions about their own lives. Minnie's brightness sets her apart; she chooses life with a white adoptive family and escapes the Institution. Mary Allen and Pip Squeak, Edith's Institution babies, experience no such success. They are unloved and uncared for; simply talking and walking like other children are not part of their image or expectations. In her role as surrogate mother to these two, Edith provides the love and care, the urge to grow and change, that she herself has not received. She yearns for a love that will change her own life now that her sisters are gone and she alone remains.
Edith pushes her two Institution babies to meet the meager goals—monumental for them—of walking and talking. The goals are obviously symbolic: real people stand on their own two feet and speak for themselves. The atmosphere of intensity Guy builds into the scene of Edith's final visit with her young charges reiterates the symbolic nature of these two challenges. Deciding that she must leave them, she puts the children to the test. The scene is cast as a sort of ritual of preparation. The effect is dramatically created through language appropriately paced to set a mood of intense anticipation.
"Now," I said, grimfaced, serious, … "you listen Pip Squeak. You gonna walk, you hear me?" He stared at my face, felt my beat, held tight to my fingers setting his mind to it…. something happened in that room: cries, screaming, yelling, everything stopped. The room shrank from silence. Legs came around…. I never looked up … all my attention on Pip Squeak. He kept his on me.
The children's small victories—a few steps and two broken but jubilant words—are Edith's victories as well. The children have "learned to live," and Edith, propelled by her own personal longings, takes her first tentative steps into the outside world where the choices she makes are for herself.
Book 3 focuses on Edith's innocence and lack of experience in making choices. It is the pivotal section of the novel. Although life and the Institution have taught Edith a great deal about street survival, they have taught her nothing about personal goals and how to attain them. Guy brings us full circle with Edith living in Peekskill again. In her effort to escape being placed with the lecherous Reverend Jenkins, she has returned to the Bates household. Ironically, her actions bring her into confrontation with the sexuality she has long denied as she is drawn into the selfish embrace of "Mr. Brown," Mrs. Bates's nephew. The world of sexuality and romantic relationships is unexplored territory for Edith. She is an innocent girl who sees James ("Mr. Brown") as the fulfillment of all her fantasies. She is blissfully happy with their "secret relationship," but her bliss is short-lived. James leaves for Harlem and Edith finds that she is pregnant.
Returning to Harlem with fantasies of finding James and getting married, she discovers the depths of her inexperience and vulnerability. James has used and abused her, and Harlem, her old home, has changed. The old neighborhood is a wasteland and even her friends, Phylissia and Ruby, have moved. Although finding Phylissia and Ruby is not difficult, the reactions Edith receives from Ruby's friends, and even from strangers, almost breaks her spirit. Pregnant and alone, the shroud of invisibility seems to be descending upon her life. As she looks at the people she encounters, "they walked by like they walked through [her], not seeing [her.]." Although Phylissia and Ruby are happy to see her, Ruby's snobbish friends "hadn't seen [her], had wiped [her] out." Even gentle Ruby subtly declares Edith different by suggesting that Edith should have her baby and go on welfare, while Ruby's own decision is to have an abortion so that she can return to college.
The road from Harlem to Peekskill to Harlem, indeed her whole life, seems only to have prepared Edith to join the rest of her family as "faceless statistics": her father, "shuffling out of the door and never coming back, a statistic; Randy, shot by a cop, a statistic; Ellen dead, malnutrition, a statistic; Bessie dead, a statistic; Suzy, a missing person, a statistic." Only Minnie was different, "she had made a choice."
Minnie, although she has chosen a new family, becomes the link to keep the Jackson family in touch. The irony of Minnie, who has chosen adoption by a white family, assuming the role that might eventually help reunite the family is not lost on Edith. What Edith sees as family betrayal has spared Minnie the invisibility that the other family members experience, giving her a name and an address that can be traced. This kind of irony of intent versus actual effect supports the theme of choice and self-responsibility. Acknowledging her lack of preparation for motherhood or a self-supporting life, Edith decides to have an abortion and to reach out to her friend, Mrs. Bates, for help. Poised on the verge of invisibility—life as an unwed mother on welfare—she chooses rather to relinquish her place in the welfare line to another teenage mother. She is fully aware of the consequences of her choice and the years of work that lie ahead.
In Edith Jackson, the full scope of the problems affecting the years of growth for young women are explored not as isolated problems but, realistically, as intersecting issues. Each of the three novels in some way foreshadows conflicts and challenges yet to come. In the girls' reunion in Edith Jackson we are updated on the progress of their individual journeys. They have all come of age weaving the strands of their evolving selfhood into patterns of their own making. "Ruby [dreaming] from need" is still searching, seeking validation of herself in others, attending college to satisfy family and friends rather than herself. Phylissia, dream[ing] to be dreaming," confidently takes on the world as a place of adventure and excitement peopled with heroes and villains. Edith fighting her way out of the nightmare of poverty has taken a first step—her decision to have an abortion and to call Mrs. Bates for support—toward choosing and realizing her own dreams, her own self.
Guy's complex and credible black heroines have filled a void in the literature—a void Guy felt strongly as a young woman. Speaking out of her own awareness of this absence of black heroines, writer Alice Walker has praised Guy's work. In a review of The Friends she notes: "I relive those wretched, hungry-for-heroine years and am helped to verify the existence and previous condition of myself."6 The existence and condition of young women growing up is the essence of the trilogy. Individually and as a unit the novels explore the process of reconciling self-images, relationships, and responsibilities (personal, familial, social) into a congruent, growing self.
Guy's special admiration for the black American woman is clearly evident in the characters—Daphne, Edith, Mrs. Bates—all strong distinctive individuals, but realistically portrayed with flaws as well as virtues. Guy has said, "I have always been the most profound admirer of the stamina, the grit of the black American woman. She is a strong individual, much different than her counterpart anywhere else in the world. She is someone of whom one need never be ashamed. She will always fill the place in any book—a history book, or fiction. The black American woman is the strength on which I believe the American society has survived."
Although Guy focuses in the trilogy on the experiences of young black women—their increasing need for independence and new relationships, peer pressure, growing sexuality, the conflicts of personal choice versus parental authority—the experiences are recognizably the same for all young people. Her sensitive and realistic handling of the special challenges of young women coming of age in the inner city mark her work as unique.
1. Mary Helen Washington, ed., Midnight Birds: Stories of Contemporary Black Women Writers. New York, 1980, pp. xv-xvii.
2. Regina Williams, "Book Review: Ruby," Interracial Books for Children Bulletin 8, no. 2 (1977): 14-15.
4. Judith Mitchell, "Loving Girls," ALAN Review 10, no. 1 (Fall 1982): 32.
5. "Review: Ruby," Publishers Weekly 209, no. 16 (19 April 1976): 80.
6. Alice Walker, The Friends, New York Times Book Review, 4 November 1973, 26.
Cherrell V. Robinson (essay date 1998)
SOURCE: Robinson, Cherrell V. "Love and Sex in Rosa Guy's Trilogy: The Friends, Ruby, and Edith Jackson." In The Woman, the Writer, and Caribbean Society, edited by Helen Pyne-Timothy, pp. 187-98. Los Angeles, Calif.: Center for African-American Studies Publications, 1998.
[In the following essay, Robinson studies the portrayal of relationships, self-identity, and gender roles in Guy's "Friends" trilogy.]
Coming of age is a universal experience faced by young people, requiring them to accomplish certain developmental tasks if they are to become mature and well-adjusted adults. Significant among these tasks are coming to terms with self and establishing an identity, gaining independence from parents, and developing new relationships with peers. While these concerns might be relevant to all young people, irrespective of time and place, their experiences will definitely be affected by the social and cultural context within which their development occurs.
Due to the significance attached to the transition from adolescence to adulthood, many writers of novels for young adults including Rosa Guy, have written on this topic. However, what distinguishes her works from the general mass is her intimate knowledge and remarkable insights into the lives of her characters, which allow her to portray the social and emotional realism of their experiences with accuracy. Her ability to write such powerful and realistic novels is no doubt informed by her own experiences while growing up in Harlem, where her race and culture always made her feel like an outsider. Her sympathetic portrayal of young people also springs from her genuine concern with the anxieties of their age group; she writes out of the belief that sensitively written books can provide understanding and guidance for the emerging adult.
The three books under consideration—The Friends, Ruby, and Edith Jackson —depict the growth to womanhood of three young adults in America.1 What makes their circumstances particularly interesting is that the young adults are black, which means that color, class, and gender become powerful determinants of the nature and quality of their experiences. The fact that two of the characters are West Indians only adds to their burdens as they struggle to come into their own in a strange country. The novels are all set in Harlem, which not only provides a background for the action but also serves as a controlling factor for the type of experiences the protagonists will face in growing up. In Harlem, racism is rife, and even within the black community, there is discrimination on the basis of class, shade, and status as native born or immigrant. Added to the various prejudices are the other problems created by continued government neglect of social institutions and services, which in their decadent condition have now become the enemy of the people. A good example is the schools, where children are subjected to racial abuse every day.
The chance of developing to their fullest potential constantly eludes these adolescents because so much of their energies are dissipated in fighting the inequitable social system in order to just survive. Confronted with these overwhelming odds, the young are particularly susceptible to despair, which further impedes their growth toward self-definition. Therefore, any attempt by young people to find meaning and self-fulfillment in this hostile environment demands toughness, resilience, determination, and above all hopefulness. These are some of the qualities displayed by Guy's characters as they struggle against the many stultifying elements in their social environment in their search for a more satisfying way of life.
All three of Guy's heroines have serious interpersonal problems that threaten to overwhelm them, and in order to cope, they are forced to dig deep within themselves in order to find the necessary strength to make the kind of choices that will set them on the path to becoming fulfilled persons. The three protagonists are Phyllisia, Ruby, and Edith. Phyllisia and Ruby are sisters who have recently migrated from the West Indies to join their parents in search of a better life; Edith is American-born, orphaned, and desperately poor, faced with the task of growing up without a family's support. All of the young women are socially disadvantaged by reason of their color, culture, class, and sex, which intensifies their inner and outer conflicts.
This search for self is an integral aspect in the coming of age process, and the author chooses this as her central theme in each book as she documents a short period in the life of each of the three young women. The trilogy is held together by the similarity of their tripartite structure, the constant interweaving of the lives of the three young women, the common setting, and the shared themes. A further link is the foreshadowing in each book of events that are to assume greater significance in the following ones. After reading these books, we are left with the feeling that all three stories are only parts of a large canvas showing the development and growth to adulthood of young black women in an oppressive society.
It is not surprising that Guy's three heroines are constantly preoccupied with a search for love and acceptance because they all have unsatisfying family relationships: Love is either noticeably absent or ill-expressed. As they reach out, sometimes in unexpected ways, in their desperate search for fulfillment through meaningful relationships, they are compelled to make critical self-discoveries that empower them to take control of their lives and become better people. Guy's vivid language captures the starkness of the emotional and social landscape of their lives, which makes her protagonists sisters-in-arms in this struggle for self-fulfillment and personhood.
The first of the trilogy, The Friends, chronicles the life of fourteen-year-old Phyllisia over a period of about one year, marked by the changing seasons that symbolically represent the evolution of her friendship with a most unlikely character and her own growth toward self-knowledge. At the beginning of the book, Phyllisia has recently arrived from the West Indies to join her family in Harlem, where the sharp contrasts between the physical and social environments are immediately evident. She is promptly nicknamed "monkey chaser," her West Indian accent is ridiculed, and her ostracism is made complete due to her academic brilliance, which only engenders further resentment from her classmates. Phyllisia is made painfully aware that she is an outsider among her black American peers, even though she shares their color.
The young protagonist might be better able to cope with these unpleasant external pressures if her home life was more satisfying, but this is not so. Her family relationship is dominated by an insensitive, loud-mouthed father, Calvin, whose energy is channeled primarily into making money and maintaining the strictest control over the lives of his daughters. Phyllisia is puzzled by her mother's love for her domineering father, which allows her to accept his crass behavior with playful indulgence while at the same time leaving both her daughters victims of his physical and psychological abuses. Phyllisia also feels estranged from her mother, having been kept at a distance in more ways than one for too long, so that it becomes difficult to forge any kind of close bond. As for her sister, Ruby is popular, brainy, and beautiful, while Calvin, whose judgment brooks no contradiction, declares Phyllisia to be ugly. The combination of Phyllisia's sense of rejection, the ambivalence toward her parents, and her poor self-esteem create a hunger for a meaningful relationship. In short, she is in dire need of friendship—the main theme of the book.
Thwarted in her search for affection and understanding within the family, Phyllisia looks next among her peers, where her chances are hardly better except for one volunteer—Edith Jackson—who is totally unacceptable by Phyllisia's standards: Edith is always sloppily dressed, is obviously poor, and is not in her social class. Phyllisia consistently ignores Edith's friendly overtures until the latter's valiant stand to protect her from the class bully forges a special friendship born primarily out of gratitude.
As the story unfolds, Guy explores the forces that initially prevent the girls from becoming real friends; these include class barriers as well as Phyllisia's lack of self-knowledge. Although accepting her need for Edith's friendship, Phyllisia keeps it a lop-sided relationship in which Edith shares her secret life of poverty, truancy, and responsibility for her many siblings. Throughout all this, Phyllisia remains consciously aloof, venturing only information that suggests her family is well-off, thus establishing her social superiority. Sometimes during these interchanges, Phyllisia makes unkind remarks intended to put down Edith. Such behavior reveals Phyllisia's ignorance of her own ability to inflict the same kind of pain on her new-found friend that her peers inflict on her. This shows that Phyllisia does not yet have a clear perception of herself that would lead to a greater respect for and a growing sensitivity toward others.
The girls have much in common besides being black. They are both on the fringes of society, hated by the teacher, who seizes every opportunity to humiliate them, and both are in need of friendship. Gradually, Phyllisia grows to love the warm, caring Edith she discovers beneath the scruffy exterior, but at the same time, she has to admit she is terribly ashamed of her because of her obvious poverty and lack of status. This ambivalence establishes the major tension in the novel, which builds toward the climax.
Forebodings about the possible demise of the friendship appear early in the novel through the girls' unexpected encounter with Calvin during a street riot and his later order that his daughter never be seen with that ragamuffin Edith again. Threats to the friendship also come from a more insidious quarter—Phyllisia herself. She has not yet succeeded in reconciling her ambivalence toward Edith resulting from their differences in social class.
The relationship is played out against the backdrop of seasonal changes, which coincide with the development of the friendship and of Phyllisia as a person. The friendship starts reluctantly in spring, is cemented during a golden summer, and goes on hold during the fall, when both suffer painful losses while the relationship is in a flux. It is seemingly shattered irrevocably during winter, while Phyllisia struggles to come to terms with the realities of her world and her inner self, but it is resurrected the next spring as Phyllisia gains new perspectives on the meaning and responsibilities of friendship. At the end of this cycle, the protagonist is no longer an immature self-pitying figure but one who knows herself much better and is quite capable of standing up to her father and fighting for what she believes is right.
Throughout the novel, the author employs several devices to reveal character, to define relationships, to create balance, and to advance the plot. The boisterous Calvin is foiled by the quiet, soft-spoken Mr. Charles, who along with Uncle Frank provides a rational and balanced view of things. Calvin's tyrannical image is further softened by the different personalities of his daughters and their attitudes toward him. Both yearn for a tangible expression of his affection, which is not forthcoming. Phyllisia's response is an assumed hatred and a constant harping on his faults. The more easy-going Ruby readily forgives his abuses and is always seeking ways to demonstrate her love for him. His wife's wholehearted acceptance of Calvin also lessens the harshness of the reader's opinion of him.
The second part of the book deals with changes brought about by death and shows Phyllisia's gradual self-awakening. The loss that both girls experience becomes a catalyst in their relationship. Edith's father walks out of their lives without a word, and baby Ellen dies from malnourishment. Meanwhile, Phyllisia's beautiful mother is first disfigured by cancer and eventually succumbs to its ravages. Unfortunately, the girls bear much of the suffering without benefit of each other's loving support because of the hiatus in their friendship brought about by several things. Edith is forced to drop out of school to look after her family, and Phyllisia gradually becomes preoccupied with her new class and a long-desired friendship with the socially correct Marian. It is only as the smell of death closes in that Phyllisia recognizes her need for someone who understands. Through the act of reaching out to Edith for this reassuring bond of friendship, Phyllisia unwittingly precipitates the climax of the story, Edith's disastrous visit to the family home. Then Phyllisia's behavior shows that she has not yet learned the responsibilities of friendship, which are such an important part of any meaningful relationship.
Only much, much later does Phyllisia allow herself to acknowledge her class prejudice. This marks the beginning of the road toward growth and real self-discovery. With the help of her mother, whose impending death grants her clarity of vision and truthfulness, Phyllisia is forced to face the realities of her inner self, her mother's approaching death, and the need to adopt a sense of responsibility toward self and others if she is ever to become a mature person.
Guy records Phyllisia's futile attempts to escape self-knowledge:
When the door slammed behind him, I drew my knees up to touch my forehead, rolled myself up under the bedcovers to emphasize my aloneness … to keep out the light … blotting out unwanted memories … but I could not blot out the voice which plagued me … the ghost that haunted me when my defenses were gone.
(The Friends, p. 170)
Her whole body in the grip of a metaphorical fever, Phyllisia resorts to the fetal position, symbolizing her attempt to withdraw from the reality of her own cruelty, which was prompted by false concepts of self and others. She squirms uncomfortably in the revealing light and tries to escape the probing questions of her mother's spirit, which force her to face the unvarnished truths about herself. Suddenly, the light penetrates the darkness of her inner world, and she admits that
I had seen things the way I wanted them to be. I had wanted to be the unhappy princess living with a cruel king of a father. I had wanted to be the daughter of the owner of a big restaurant … to be rich, to live in luxury, so that I could feel superior to them—to people like Edith…. I was the fraud.
(The Friends, p. 173)
Phyllisia at last acknowledges her own pretensions, her own willingness to live in a make-believe world and thus deceive herself and hurt others. Self-knowledge comes painfully, but once it is gained, Phyllisia realizes what her responsibilities are toward her best friend, Edith. She is now ready to take the first step that will put their relationship on an equal footing; she is called upon to validate her change of heart when Calvin decides to send the girls back to the West Indies. Faced with the risk of being unfaithful to her promises, Phyllisia for the first time is prepared to negotiate with her father and establish some kind of meaningful communication with him. This is no longer the irresponsible, uncertain young girl we encountered at the beginning of the book, but a wiser, more mature young adult who has come to terms with herself and is learning to take charge of her life.
Phyllisia's older sister, Ruby, is brought into sharper focus in the second book, which bears her name. While social class and filial love played a major role in creating and reconciling the conflict in The Friends, here the struggle expresses itself in terms of a triangular relationship involving Ruby, her father, and Daphne. The need to gain independence from parents is one of the most turbulent aspects of the growing up process, and it is responsible for a great many of the bitter conflicts between parent and child. When the parent is male and the child is female, another dimension is added: There is always the hint of latent sexual tensions present in the father-daughter conflict. The matter is further complicated by the homosexual nature of Ruby's relationship with Daphne.
Guy is one of the first writers to introduce a fully developed lesbian relationship in young adult literature without any of the customary guilt or moralizing. The story is sensitively handled, and the focus is not on the fact that this is a love affair between two young women; rather, the incident becomes a vehicle for exploring the nature of relationships and their effect on a young woman's growth into adulthood.
The author graphically captures Ruby's loneliness in the opening paragraph of the book: "Loneliness, like a vapor, wafted from her bowels up through her stomach, encompassed her heart where, gaining substance, it slithered along her throat, collecting, thickening, making her cords bulge out on her neck, forcing her to swallow, hold on to the thickness, prevent its erupting into screams, hysteria, torrents of tears" (Ruby, p. 3).
The tension, the desperation, and the mounting hysteria are tangible and the repeated reference to the color brown in the same paragraph conveys the dullness of Ruby's world, which will later assume different hues indicating her changing emotional state. By the end of the third paragraph of the novel, Guy has already established Ruby's emotional hunger, exacerbated by the unfulfilling and changing nature of relationships that were "fluid as water, fragile as those modern buildings which so often replaced the graceful, lovingly constructed, old house."
Throughout the novel, the narrative is interspersed with snatches of the protagonist's private thoughts, giving the reader a deeper insight into her emotional landscape, the book's strong point. The physical setting is still real but not as significant as her inner world, where the true struggle takes place.
Ruby's longing for intimacy is at first directed toward her father and shown in her attempts to hug him and to get some affirmation of his love. But if we recall Phyllisia's description of him from the earlier book—she said Calvin was not a man given to softness, that gentleness came hard to him, tenderness embarrassed him, and loving words were painful—then we know that Ruby will be disappointed in her quest. Not to be deterred, however, she tries to win his affection by mothering him, touching him, and generally fussing over him. Such behavior quickly identifies her as the dependent type of personality, usually characterized by low self-esteem, a poor self-image, and a chronic inability to take charge of one's life.
Given these factors, the problem is clearly Ruby's need to establish her identity and to separate herself from her authoritarian father, who prides himself on being able to control every detail of his children's lives. This particular dilemma furnishes the opportunity for Guy to explore the dynamics of human relationships and the significant role they play in the development of self-concept and the outcome of the maturation process.
For quite some time, Ruby does not truly recognize the source of her intense loneliness; her more deeply hidden need for sexual intimacy is still undefined, unexpressed, and unrecognized. In this state of inner turmoil, secret yearnings, and depressing self-pity, she discovers the beautiful Daphne:
Suddenly all her senses were tuned to the person who had just entered…. Daphne, Daphne, Daphne of the smooth tan skin. Daphne of the heavy, angry black eyebrows that were fantastically right in combination with her gray eyes. Daphne of the thick, well-formed lips, the large white teeth. Feminine Daphne with the thick, crisply curly, black shoulder-length hair. Boyish Daphne with her thick neck, her colorful silk shirts, her tweeds.
(Ruby, p. 15)
Daphne, her cool, sophisticated, articulate, and intelligent classmate, has an electrifying effect upon Ruby. This girl represents everything she longs to be. Guy's language is replete with sexual overtones and ambiguities as she uses both feminine and masculine images to describe Ruby's perception of Daphne and so heightens the inner tensions of the heroine and at the same time prepares the reader for their subsequent sexual encounter.
Inexplicably, Ruby finds herself eager for Daphne's acknowledgment of her existence, intuitively sensing that her future fulfillment is somehow tied up with this stimulating person. If we accept the psychologist's theory that a girl's relationship with her father tends to determine how she will relate to her mate, and that very often when she selects a partner, subconsciously she will choose a person like him, then we might be better able to understand at least part of the reason for Ruby's fascination with Daphne. She is a dominant personality just like Calvin, Ruby's father, and obviously has a strong appeal for our heroine because, in psychological terms, Ruby is a giver and a pleaser.
Guy provides various clues that point toward the emergence of the homosexual relationship. We see Ruby demanding to know if her sister loves her and following this up by a kiss planted firmly on the lips. She does the same with Calvin, and both kisses suggest something bordering on the erotic. Her most outstanding memory of her mother is that of their bathing together nude and the pleasure she derived from being held close to her mother's naked body. Later, too, there is the brief contact that she has in the classroom with Miss O'Brien, which seems more like a sexual overture.
By detailing every nuance of Ruby's emotions, the author poignantly conveys some of the anguish that can make the teenage years traumatic. But as Ruby surrenders herself to the unspoken proposition that has been suspended between her and Daphne, Ruby "found herself, a likeness to herself, a response to her needs, her age, an answer to her loneliness" (p. 47). The protagonist's humdrum brown world suddenly explodes into a kaleidoscope of exciting colors with her new-found love guarded and illumined by the symbolic red light at the entrance of her lover's room. Like the moon that reflects the sun's light, Ruby basks in Daphne's brilliance with exquisite abandon, considering herself privileged. For the first time, she starts to feel good about herself, as she is challenged to keep pace with Daphne's lively intelligence, to read critically, to update her knowledge on black history and philosophy, to question the oppressive social system under which she is forced to live because of her color, and to set ambitious goals and then devise the strategies for accomplishing them in the midst of her hostile world.
Embarking on this relationship plays a crucial role in Ruby's maturation. First, it leads to improved self-confidence and better performance at school, but more significantly it launches her into the struggle for independence and selfhood that is a part of the rite of passage for all young people. But Ruby must confront her dictatorial father before she can win her freedom to personhood.
All three sides of the triangle are now clearly defined, and we watch as the classic conflict is played out to see if Ruby will eventually achieve self-actualization. The two people between whom she is torn are tough and relentless in the pursuit of what they consider to be theirs; neither seems willing to compromise, and so Ruby finds her happiness threatened by the need for secrecy from Calvin and Daphne's demand for openness. Finally, Ruby is forced to make a choice.
Guy vividly paints the agony of soul that Ruby experiences as she battles with the dilemma brought about by her own inability to break loose emotionally from her father despite his unjustified abuse and his failure to recognize her approaching adulthood. He has dominated her life for so long that she is trapped by her dependency on him, yet she also wants the intimacy Daphne offers. Guy's resolution uses the winding sheet (fashioned to permit Daphne to escape from Ruby's room) to symbolize the death of the relationship. When Daphne's weight is no longer felt at the end of the sheet, there is a lightness, an emptiness, and somehow Ruby senses the loss. She seeks reconciliation with Calvin but, the reader is left somewhat unsure of how well Ruby will be able to cope with life in comparison to the worldly wise and ruthless Daphne.
We do see signs of growing self-knowledge in the latter part of the book: Ruby's observation of Miss Effie's dogged devotion to her father and her recognition of the cruelty of Ms. Gottlieb, her racist teacher. But neither of these revelations seems to bring about any real change, although we see Ruby taking tentative steps toward life as she tells her sister, after a suicide attempt, that she really wants to live. For the reader, the uncertainty about Ruby's ability to take charge of her life persists, and one can only hope that no matter how gradually, she will move toward self-determination.
Edith Jackson, the last book of the trilogy, deals with the ragamuffin that we met earlier in The Friends. At this stage of her life, Edith is an orphan, having lost her remaining parent. Her brother has also been killed, by the police, and her youngest sister dies from malnutrition. Edith's dilemma is the need for the kind of love and security that a happy family can provide. Deprived of this warmth herself, she is determined to give it to her three sisters, and so she fights to keep them together. Through a realistic portrayal of the cruel indifference of the officials in social institutions entrusted with the care of socially disadvantaged young people, Guy shows the horrors of the black experience in America's urban ghettos during the 1960s and 1970s. She also reveals the irrepressible strength of these people, exemplified by Edith, as they struggle to come into their own.
When we meet Edith, she is in a foster home with all her sisters, whom she has managed to keep together over the years. Now that she will soon be eighteen, she is looking forward to leaving the institution and getting a job to support them. Since the disappearance of her father, her world has been one of social and emotional deprivation, as she and her sisters were shunted from one foster home to the next. The emotional weight that she carries is sufficient to break the spirit of any normal person, but Edith emerges as tough, with the instincts of a born survivor helping her to cope with the hardships she faces as an orphaned black young adult.
Accustomed to looking after her sisters, Edith does not consider her need to develop a life of her own, separate and apart from that of her siblings. She subsumes her own needs into those of her family. But despite her efforts, the family drifts apart before her very eyes, and she is powerless to stop it. Minnie develops a close relationship with a white family, which will eventually adopt her, Bessie refuses to let Edith into her private world of intrigue and stolen kisses, and Suzy ignores Edith and chooses Minnie as her role model. Edith is effectively shut out of their world, and her isolation is poignantly conveyed in the scene where she views her sister's dead body and says:
Bessie lay there, hard and cold and lonely … a lonely dead mouse…. Did I love you? … you hurt me little girl. But I sure didn't know you. Didn't know you, little girl.
(Edith Jackson, p. 107)
Bessie's disappearance causes the rest of them to be returned to the Institution, capitalized like a proper noun because of the beast it represents in their lives.
As Ruby's private world gradually falls to pieces, Guy provides a mentor in Mrs. Bates to whom she turns, remembering her advice:
You want to get away, Edith, I'll never stop you if you don't want to stay. But remember, you can keep your hands on your hips, tap your feet … use every four letter word … and until you decide that you are a person who can make choices and fight for them—you will never count.
(Edith Jackson, p. 57)
Mrs. Bates expresses the real choice that faces Edith as she meets the challenges of life and experiences failure in her attempts to find personal fulfillment through the life of others. James refuses to accept responsibility for her pregnancy. A visit to her best friend, Phyllisia, turns out far from satisfying, and as Edith waits uncertainly in the welfare line, she studies the faces of the people, noting their despair. At last, she finds herself agreeing with Mrs. Bates that she has a choice, and at that moment, she knows she does not want to be like the people standing there. Like a homing pigeon, she turns toward Mrs. Bates as she decides to have an abortion and so take control of her life.
In this trilogy, Guy provides valuable psychological insight into the lives of three young black women struggling to find themselves in an unfriendly world. The movement of each toward adulthood and a sense of personal identity and belonging represents a part of a continuum that marks different phases of their adolescent development. The search for affirmation and self-definition is represented in Phyllisia, the youngest, by her intense desire for friendship, which she finds in Edith. Ruby's intense longing is far more complex because it also includes a need for sexual fulfillment and propels her into a lesbian affair with Daphne. Edith, the last of the trio, yearns for the se- curity of a normal family life, sexual fulfillment, and the need to choose a future based on her own needs and not those of her siblings. Her pregnancy and abortion take her further into adulthood than the others.
For the three protagonists, all these relationships are transitory and serve as milestones along the journey to self-discovery and maturity. These social interactions are significant because through them, the characters learn much about themselves and others, discovering the resilience of the human spirit in the face of all odds. Guy's strength lies in her perceptive portrayal of the adolescent experience by means of her graphic descriptions, vivid characterizations, and the obvious empathy with which she writes. Her works are of particular significance to black young adults, who need to see themselves positively presented in the literature they encounter. But irrespective of the race or social circumstances of her readers, the universality of Guy's themes, which often focus on hope and determination, should have a strong appeal for young adults anywhere.
1. Rosa Guy, The Friends (London: Gollancz, 1973); Ruby (London: Gollancz, 1976); Edith Jackson (London: Gollancz, 1978). The same editions are used in all subsequent references to these works. Page numbers for quotations are provided in text.
THE DISAPPEARANCE (1979)
Carol Hanson Sibley (essay date 2001)
SOURCE: Sibley, Carol Hanson. "Imamu's Search for Mother in Rosa Guy's The Disappearance." In The Phoenix Award of the Children's Literature Association, 1995-1999, edited by Alethea Helbig and Agnes Perkins, pp. 241-45. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2001.
[In the following essay, Sibley offers a critical reading of Imamu Jones's quest for familial love in The Disappearance.]
Rosa Guy, according to Rudine Sims, has made a significant contribution to the image of African Americans in children's fiction. Sims notes that the works of authors who are image makers have a number of common characteristics, including an emphasis on loving relationships within families and "the will and strength and determination to cope and survive" (96). These characteristics are a central focus in The Disappearance, the first in a trilogy called the Imamu Jones Mysteries. In the trilogy, Guy depicts Imamu Jones, a sixteen-year-old Harlem teenager, who struggles against being trapped in the Harlem ghetto where he has grown up. Imamu's struggle for a loving family and his will to overcome overwhelming adversity set him apart from other Harlem youth. Guy comments: "In my life I have experienced deep, dark passions. I have descended into depths of despair, rage, humiliation. But there is always the human will to live, the will to overcome—the human spirit" (132).
Imamu's determination to survive and to be loved reflects Guy's own tragic experience of growing up in Harlem as an orphan. As Laurie Ann Eno states: "Love is her fundamental concern. Her books beg the question of how love survives in the face of fear, poverty, betrayal and hatred" (261). The central theme of The Disappearance is the need for a family and in particular the need for a mother's love.
As a young child, Imamu knows the love of both a mother and a father, but when his mother receives a telegram that his father is missing in action in Vietnam, she is devastated and turns to alcohol to create a facade for her loneliness and fear. When Imamu is just nine years old, he takes care of himself while his mother is hospitalized for her alcoholism and from this time on becomes her caretaker. Imamu is naive about the debilitating effects of alcoholism and often wonders why his love is not enough to make his mother stop drinking: "What about his mother? Out there alone, a lone, lone soul walking the streets. What was she looking for in a bottle that was greater than his loving and caring?" (203).
Because Imamu is present when his friend Iggy kills a shopkeeper, Imamu is also arrested for robbery and murder. During his trial, he is helped by Ann Aimsley, a respectable, middle-class Brooklyn housewife and mother, who has become compulsive about sitting in on cases involving children and teenagers. To Imamu "she was a great lady" whom everyone respects; she does not miss a day of his trial (4). On the other hand, Imamu is deeply hurt because his own mother never comes to the jail, the lock-up, or the trial.
After Imamu is acquitted, the authorities release him into the guardianship of Ann Aimsley. When he meets the Aimsley family in their Brooklyn home, the situation is tense. Imamu first meets the college-aged daughter, Gail, who is expecting an impoverished street kid, not a handsome and mature young man. Ann's husband, Peter, is skeptical; he is not out to save the needy. The ten-year-old daughter, Perk, "spoiled, quick-tongued, irresistible," is curious (37). Their close family friend, Dora Belle, vain, beautiful, and dangerous, sees Imamu as a potential conquest. She says to the family, "‘My but he ain't a child a-tall. He a young man. A pretty young man’" (22).
Except for Gail, the adults in the novel hide behind masks. In the course of the story, it is Imamu, the stranger, who manages to remove these masks and reveal the real people underneath the facades. Guy plays on the words "disappearance" and "appearance." As Jerrie Norris observes: "Perfect marriages and friendships turn out to be not so perfect, and surface appearances mask feelings and actions that are just the opposite" (70).
Imamu is immediately caught between his two families, particularly between his birth and foster mothers, the mother whom he truly loves but who is usually not capable of loving in return, and his new mother, whom since his rescue, he trusts implicitly. On his second day with the Aimsleys, events take a tragic twist: Perk disappears. All the trust that Ann had for Imamu immediately shatters. Her caring is a front for her family and friends, part of her facade to help her feel important and good.
When the police find one of Perk's hair ribbons in Imamu's room and notice his bandaged hand, Imamu is under suspicion. Rather than defending him as he expects, Ann accuses Imamu of being responsible for Perk's disappearance: "‘What did you do with her? What did you do with my child!’" (111). The police take Imamu in for questioning, where they try to torture the truth out of him. When they finally release him for lack of evidence, he finds both Gail and his mother waiting for him. Just when his foster mother has abandoned him, his mother comes to his rescue. Imamu says to Ann, who has come to take Gail back home, "‘See … this here is a great lady. Great lady. She can hardly walk, yet she made it all the way from Harlem to get me. The lady loves me’" (137).
Like Ann Aimsley, however, Imamu's mother does not necessarily think that he is innocent. Imamu sees both mothers overcome by fears. His mother "had given up to total fear—fear heaped upon fear. It was fear of him, fear of the neighborhood, fear of the neighbors' faces, fears of the neighbors' pain—she had built a mountain of fears up around her from which she had to hide" (139). Ann's fears are for Perk, for Imamu's promise to return to help Gail solve the mystery, and for a lifetime of fears yet to be uncovered. As Imamu recognizes the fears of both mothers, he realizes, despite their very different lives in Harlem and Brooklyn, that they are essentially alike. Their images merge into the face of one woman overcome by insecurities and loneliness. At this point neither trusts him: "The lady he had dug the most had joined the lady he loved in selling him out to the Man" (141).
When Imamu returns to Brooklyn and to the Aimsley home with the goal of finding Perk, it is the painting left behind by another young boarder that helps Imamu see beneath the masks. The painting is much more than a stormy sea. As he stares at the painting, he notices the details. Underneath the surface are bodies being beaten and drowned by the pounding waves. The painting becomes a symbol of life in this Brooklyn community, or in any community. When people are unmasked, there is much to learn about their very complicated lives.
Imamu solves the mystery of Perk's disappearance when he uncovers Dora Belle's secret. Running into her bedroom, Imamu surprises Dora Belle and discovers her baldness. The femme fatale, so beautiful, vain, and proud, cannot tolerate anyone discovering her secret. She attacks Imamu, who needs all of his youthful strength to escape. Now he realizes that on the morning of her disappearance, Perk must have also barged in on Dora Belle, discovered her closely guarded secret, and paid for it with her life. Dora Belle, who cannot admit Perk's death, covered up the accident by burying the body in the basement of one of her houses. Imamu discovers the hiding place.
By discovering Dora Belle's secret, Imamu has released his foster mother from a life of appearances. Realizing the flirtatious relationship between Dora Belle and Peter, Ann has hidden behind the image of a perfect homemaker, wife, and mother. Behind her mask of perfection, she is deeply fearful and jealous. After Dora Belle is taken into custody, Ann no longer needs to be perfect to compete. Imamu notices: "The ropelike veins on Ann Aimsley's neck had disappeared. The tension on her face was gone. She looked at ease with herself" (240). Tragically the innocent Perk has become the sacrifice.
By solving the mystery of Perk's disappearance, Imamu saves himself. By proving his innocence, he wins back the faith of both mothers and also rescues his foster mother. Now Imamu can turn his attentions back to his birth mother. He explains to Peter that he must leave the Aimsleys and return to Harlem:
Naw, I got to go…. The way I figger I owe it to my old lady. The house look like a junkyard. Maybe if I did a little fixing, be there to make sure she looks after herself, she might get to wanting to pull herself together. Anyway, she needs me.
Imamu's love for his mother is too deep to abandon her for his new family. He is determined to save her as he did Ann. He tells Peter: "‘You ain't losing me, you know. I'm just expanding …’" (246).
The Disappearance is not a perfect novel. The Aimsley family does not seem horrified enough over Dora Belle's silence and cover-up. Likewise, they accept the death of Perk too quickly. The family problems caused by the triangle of Ann, Peter, and Dora Belle may not be easily resolved by Dora Belle's absence. Nevertheless, The Disappearance does deserve its Phoenix Honor Book recognition for Guy's characterization of the teenaged Imamu, who is so fragile in his longing for love and acceptance, yet so strong in his determination to survive and care for those he loves.
Eno, Laurie Ann. "Rosa (Cuthbert) Guy." Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers. Ed. Laura Standley Berger. Detroit: St. James, 1994. 260-62.
Guy, Rosa. "The Human Spirit." Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference. Ed. Selwyn R. Cudjoe. Wellesley: Calaloux, 1990. 128-33.
Norris, Jerrie. Presenting Rosa Guy. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
Sims, Rudine. Shadow and Substance: Afro-American Experience in Contemporary Children's Fiction. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1982.
Sabine Steinisch (essay date 2003)
SOURCE: Steinisch, Sabine. "From Roots to Routes: Sleuthing Identity in Two Juvenile Ethnic Detective Novels." In Sleuthing Ethnicity: The Detective in Multiethnic Crime Fiction, edited by Dorothea Fischer-Hornung and Monika Mueller, pp. 148-50, 156-63. Teanack, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003.
[In the following excerpt, Steinisch compares and contrasts Guy's The Disappearance with Laurence Yep's Thief of Hearts, arguing that The Disappearance is primarily a study of ethnic identity.]
In the world in which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.
—Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
Rewriting the World for Adolescents
As much as language represents our world, language creates and shapes worlds. Thus, the possibility of decolonizing culture, of moving beyond a culture of domination and marginalization, resides primarily in the activity of writing and reading. Especially for children and young adults, reading experiences play a vital part in the construction of their worldview and in finding their own subject position in relation to a hybrid and complex community. Works by writers of ethnic minorities have an important share in the shaping of hybrid cultures and transnational identities, because they give voice to the experiences of loss and displacement suffered by those who live in between cultures.
Due to its generic conventions, the detective novel provides a fruitful ground for the exploration of the issue of identity. The central question of a detective novel is, after all, one of identity: Whodunit? The detective investigates a crime and, finally, after collecting and evaluating clues and evidence, s/he uncovers the criminal's identity and comes up with the solution to the mysteries that unsettled the world order. It is the detective's power to fix identity, to divide the world into good and bad, and to unambiguously assign the positions of victim and evildoer that restores the prevailing social order. This affirmative ideology is prevalent in traditional, classic detective fiction, which upholds a philosophy of rational individualism, presenting people as fixed components in an immutable social, political, and economic system. According to Peter Freese, the "genre's welcome message that the disturbed order of the world can be restored by means of the eventual discovery and punishment of every criminal" (1992, 8) accounts for the outstanding success of the detective novel in today's literary mass market. In particular, the majority of detective novels written especially for children and young adults adhere to the affirmative ideology of essentialized dichotomies and transport the idea of unified subjectivity, rooted in the rationality of the individual. This is one of the reasons why young readers respond so positively to the conservative endings of, for example, numerous series of juvenile detective novels. The detective's prominent position answers the readers' desire for orientation. The reader, who belongs to the detective's in-group, lives through every step s/he takes, shares success and failure, and finally finds him/herself confirmed in the assumption that science and logic are the keys that render human behavior calculable and controllable. So young readers enjoy the suspense of the mysteries that unsettle their world order all the more because there is absolute certainty that this order, much as in fairy tales, will be restored in the end.
Detective stories by authors of cultural minorities, however, tend to subvert the existing social order and to upset the hierarchical binaries of center/margin, black/white, and native/foreigner. Multicultural detective stories present "murder with a message," as Adrienne Johnson Gosselin puts it, a message reaching far beyond the reassuring security of confirmation that Freese observes. Gosselin points to the pedagogical potential of multiethnic perspectives in detective literature: "[T]heorizing the nature of inadvertent learning in multicultural detective fiction—or even the nature of multicultural detective fiction itself—is something like theorizing ‘from the borderlands’" (1999, 4). The process of "inadvertent learning" that Gosselin has in mind is grounded in the power of language and literature to create worlds and to shape and reshape readers' consciousness. Ethnic detective novels do much more than serve as "showcase windows to exotic cultures" (1999, 6) or "fulfill the function of anthropological handbooks and provide their readers with exciting introductions to unknown cultures" (Freese 1992, 10).
Gosselin foregrounds the ethnic detective novel's political and culturally innovative potential, which is also the starting point for Ruth McKoy Lowery's study Immigrants in Children's Literature. Lowery explores the ways in which migration, which has always been and still is a formative component of American society, is represented in children's literature. She emphasizes the important role juvenile literature plays in counteracting the widespread discomfort in the United States, emerging from the current controversy surrounding recent immigration, as well as in posing alternatives to the negative image of people of different racial, ethnic or socioeconomic background spread by the media:
After hearing about immigrants from the media, in their homes, or elsewhere, children do develop an image of what an immigrant is. School is often the main forum where American children may interact with immigrant children. How they perceive their immigrant peers can directly influence the relationships they may or may not develop. Although the need for presenting information about immigrants in literature is great, there is an even greater need to present positive information that can counter stereotypes….
Literature has always been important in people's lives. It is a medium of representation used with children in classroom settings and many times presents views that children would not otherwise experience. Literature is a vital source that helps us to navigate our way through past and present views of who we are and who we might become as members of a diverse society.
Juvenile literature can thus become a powerful tool for the formation of a hybrid society with a multiplicity of transnational identities. In this paper, I will focus on two juvenile detective novels published in the United States by authors of ethnic minorities, the children's novel Thief of Hearts (1995) by the Chinese American Laurence Yep and The Disappearance (1979), written for a readership of young adults by Rosa Guy, who immigrated to the United States from Trinidad. Yep and Guy use the genre of the detective novel to heighten the awareness in young readers of the problems arising from living on the borders of culture. I would like to explore how they subvert the notion of ethnic identity as rooted in national or geographic origin and point to the ways in which they offer their young readers a concept of subjectivity based on openness. The crossing of borderlines, the movement between worlds, is the central metaphor of both novels, as the protagonists come to terms with migration and its effects and literally travel between two cultural spaces. Yep and Guy favor a notion of ethnic identity thought along the lines of never-ending routes rather than the fixed stability of roots….* * *
The Difference Within: Rosa Guy's The Disappearance
In Rosa Guy's novel The Disappearance, the movement beyond boundaries does not, as in Thief of Hearts, take place between the dominant and the marginalized, but within an ethnic/racial minority at the borders of American society. Guy analyzes the position blacks, as "the other," occupy in relation to white hegemonic culture as well as the differences within the black community. She points to the displacement and discontinuity that migration as a shared experience imposes upon those who left their home country or continent, no matter when the physical act of crossing the border took place. Twentieth-century immigrants share the disruption of their past and the fragmentary vision of the world with descendants of the first slaves taken to the United States in the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, Guy emphasizes the heterogeneity of subject positions that constitute the category "black" as constructed by Western hegemonic discourse. Guy epitomizes in her novel what Stuart Hall theorizes as "new ethnicities." There is no "black experience" as a singular and unifying framework based on the building up of identity across ethnic and cultural differences. "What is at issue here is the recognition of the extraordinary diversity of subject positions, social experiences and cultural identities which compose the category ‘black’" (Hall 1996, 443).
The Disappearance explores the issue of ethnic identity, focusing on differences of socioeconomic background by crossing the borders between worlds; like Laurence Yep, Guy foregrounds moments of transit to create a space for new formations of subjectivities that go beyond static models of rootedness and perceive identities as discursive products: "It is the space of intervention emerging in the cultural interstices that introduces creative invention into existence…. [T]here is a return to the performance of identity as iteration, the re-creation of the self in the world of travel, the resettlement of the borderline of migration" (Bhabha 1994, 9). Guy's emphasis is on the individual's creative powers to construct and reconstruct identity on the subject's routes through life in the spaces between cultures. In The Disappearance, the characters' imaginative border crossings open up spaces for the formation of new individual subjectivities. Through the disruption of conventional patterns of thought these border crossings also help to incorporate the notion of heterogeneity and multiplicity of ethnic communities into a social order that traditionally perceives ethnic identity as unified and unchanging.
Imamu Jones, the sixteen-year-old protagonist of the novel, is doubly displaced. Unlike Stacy, Imamu, based on his early childhood in Harlem, is well aware of his marginalized position in white American society. Although Imamu did not migrate himself, living at the borders makes him feel the full force of not belonging, of not fitting into the dominant system. Although Guy's critique of white superiority only becomes evident in a few instances, it forms the implicit basis for the message of her novel. Imamu sees the lack of education and resulting high unemployment rates that increase the impoverishment of people of color in Harlem as a constituent trait of American society. Al, one of Imamu's Harlem friends, puts it like this:
Uncle Sam knows what he's doing…. Keep the streets full of poor suckers—in their place. That keeps the jails running; troops at the reach of the army. Put poor dudes to work and screw the economy? All them policemens out a work? All them judges out a work? Them lawyers? And don't even start talking about them half-assed politicians. Baby, the life of the country depends on you being out of work!
(Guy  1992, 157)
Imamu is "a cat from the streets," and he is accustomed to living with aggression, violence, and fear. The story opens with Imamu returning home from the youth house, after being acquitted of murder, to the neglected Harlem apartment he shares with his alcoholic mother. The contrast Guy focuses on is between the worlds of Harlem and Brooklyn, where Imamu will stay with the Aimsley family. Mrs. Aimsley, who made it her job to "give our own a chance" (13) by supporting children and teenage offenders in their trials, is appointed his guardian by the family court. Whereas Ann Aimsley never doubted that Imamu is innocent of murder, his mother, who had not been to his trial even once, throws him out of his home because she is afraid of his alleged aggression. Imamu's sense of unbelonging parallels the loss of home experienced due to migrancy:
"[Mrs. Aimsley] let me come home—to say goodbye." …
"You ain't have to come back for that. You done said what you got to say. Go back where you belong."
"I figgered I belong here."
"No, you ain't. You belong nowhere. Ought to be glad that lady even want you … 'cause Lord knows nobody else want you."
The first encounter between Imamu and his foster family intensifies his awareness of dislocation. Just as Imamu is "the other" in relation to white America, he is "the other" in his new Brooklyn neighborhood: "What was he doing in this strange land, far away from New York? Far from everything he had ever known? A stranger on foreign turf. Brooklyn. He bit his lips to keep down tears" (48-49). The tension between the two worlds, portrayed in the conflict between the responsibility Imamu feels toward his helpless mother as well as his gratitude for Mrs. Aimsley's support and his desire not to disappoint her, leaves Imamu disoriented.
The next turning point in Imamu's life is when Perk, the family's young daughter, does not return home from school on his second day with the Aimsleys. To the police and to the family, Imamu is the first and only suspect. When he is accused of being responsible for Perk's disappearance and when even Mrs. Aimsley turns against him, Imamu's disorientation turns into utter despair; he is on the verge of giving himself up altogether. Only the brutal maltreatment by two police officers who almost beat him to death rouses his will to live: "They'd never know. With him dead they'd believe that everything he knew about her died with him and was buried with him. And thinking that, Imamu's need to live stirred. He didn't want to die. He had to know what happened to Perk" (Guy  1992, 127). So the investigation into the mystery of Perk's disappearance is essential to Imamu's notion of himself.
Imamu's quest for self in the area of conflicts between life in Harlem and Brooklyn is illuminated from various perspectives. Basically, the difference consists in the contrast of appearance versus reality—in an indirect, intellectual outlook on life and perception of social imbalance on Ann's and her sixteen-year-old daughter Gail's part and the immediate everyday life encounters with discrimination, violence, and injustice on Imamu's part. Although Imamu had to learn to live with violence and fear in the streets of Harlem, he still received honest empathy and responsibility when he was a child. In the Aimsley family, however, solidarity with those who are underprivileged seems less heartfelt. It is rather seen as a political and moral obligation or even made to serve the purpose of covering lifetime deceptions hidden beneath the surface, much like the plastic furniture covers in the immaculate Aimsley home, where "an everyday sameness prevailed, cloaking the family in a sort of perfection" (Guy  1992, 15). Guy repeatedly points to the importance of outer appearances in the Aimsley family and thus refers to the secrets hidden beneath the surface. Ann Aimsley and Dora Belle—a close friend of Anne's and godmother to the girls and thus virtually a member of the family—are the characters who most prominently depend on outer appearances. When the police come to the Aimsley's house to investigate Perk's disappearance, Imamu is confused by Mrs. Aimsley's shrinking size and diminishing importance:
Imamu found himself wishing that she had changed from her house dress back to her skirt and blouse to speak to the policemen. That would have impressed them, made them look up to her. Instead they looked down. Her authority seemed as faded as her cotton dress.
The central metaphor that in the end turns out to be the key to the solution of Perk's case is that of hair and hairstyles. Dora Belle is exceptionally proud of her beautiful hair, done in long curls. Perk admires Dora Belle's hair and wants to look the same as her godmother, whereas Ann and Gail prefer their hair short. Ann defends Gail's Afro: "Dora Belle, you live in yesterday's worlds. Haven't you heard? Today we are trying to find a link to our African heritage…. We are past that good-hair-nearer-to-white" (25-26). Unlike the search of the three generations for their common past in Thief of Hearts, Ann's and Gail's search for African roots is limited to the surface; Ann Aimsley herself is not aware that her lifestyle is an exaggerated, ironic copy of white, middle-class life. Superficial matters of outer appearance, however, have never played a role in Imamu's life so far. Masks and disguises had existential importance as a means to survive in the streets and to escape the police, who "would take a dude apart—particularly if that dude happened to be black or Puerto Rican—for the ‘truth’" (107). A striking evidence of Gail's intellectual approach to life is her use of language to understand and order her world: "After all, the best way to get an understanding is through intelligent dialogue…. To discuss is the only way to find out about each other" (46-47). At the Aimsley's, Imamu is "on the receiving end of words" (111), because for him, "it is too hard to explain. He didn't have the words. He never had had words" (241).
The novel's key scene is the encounter of Imamu, his mother, and Gail at the police station. Both Gail and Imamu's mother, afraid of losing him, come to "claim" him, to collect him and take him "home." Imamu decides to return to Harlem to protect and take care of his mother, but to go back to Brooklyn for as long as it takes him to find out the truth about Perk despite Mrs. Aimsley's "betrayal." With Imamu and Gail's decision to perform this search together, Guy conveys her message that the solution lies in the mingling of multiple perspectives. However, it is Imamu who leads the way in their investigation:
"Are you sure you want me with you?…. I guess you call this a part of your street thing…." Pulling her to him in what he intended to be a consoling hug, his body felt suddenly big, broad, at the feel of her slimness against him. He held her tight, making her respond to his heart slapping against his chest. He wanted to tell her how great she was to let him do the thinking when she was nothing but a bunch of brains.
(Guy  1992, 185-86)
It becomes quite clear that intelligent dialogue and discussion are not the only means to gain an understanding of complex relations. Imamu's street-trained instinct, his knowledge and experience of fear and aggression, helps him sense that the explanation for Perk's disappearance must lie somewhere in the field of conflicts between two worlds. His talent for observation and his awareness of people's fears—both indispensable capacities to anticipate dangers and thus survive in Harlem—soon lead Imamu to Dora Belle as the centerpiece in Perk's disappearance.
More clues assemble during Gail and Imamu's search in the neighborhood. Listening to Mrs. Briggs's painful experience of migration is even more revealing to Imamu than the neighbors' observations concerning Perk's way to school. With her story, loss of home and fragmentation gain significance in Imamu's understanding of the causes for the deceptions in the Aimsley household as well as the mystery of Perk's disappearance.
The old lady came to Brooklyn from Jamaica with her husband, only to find herself let down by Mr. Briggs. Mrs. Briggs's way of dealing with her displacement and rootlessness is silence: "Forty years … not one word did cross these lips…. Not one word so long as he see fit to leave me and go out gallivanting in the night. For I ain't leave me father house and me mother house to come to this cold country to stay by meself alone, lone, lone" (Guy  1992, 189). Now that her husband is dead, Mrs. Briggs breaks her silence but, as in the past forty years, her thoughts circle only around her loss of home. Mrs. Briggs' permanently felt loss of roots parallels Dora Belle's, who emigrated to the United States from "the Island." Mrs. Briggs's story also points to Imamu's own displacement and Mrs. and Mr. Aimsley's, who both came to Brooklyn from Harlem. They all suffer marginalization within their cultural community.
Guy weaves Imamu's search for sexual identity into his investigation of Perk's disappearance. Imamu's awakening sexual desire is roused and fed by Dora Belle, who does not miss a chance to show off her pretty hair, "the symbol for her pride and beauty" (Guy  1992, 206), and attractive body in a favorable light to impress the men around her. Dora Belle even tries to seduce Imamu, especially when he visits her at home and thus gives "his manhood a real leap forward" (82). Although attracted by Dora Belle's beauty, Imamu is sure that her explicit "offering him herself and three houses" (41) only serves as a cover for a secret. When he visits Dora Bell to search for confirmation of a yet vague suspicion, he finds her in her bedroom, naked in front of her dressing table, a towel around her head. When Dora Belle turns her head, the towel falls down and reveals that she is entirely bald, except for wispy strands of gray hair. With her reaction to Imamu seeing her without her wig, her mask, the bits and pieces of the puzzle fall into place: "‘You spying bitch!’ she hissed, springing at him. ‘I going fix your fronting ass! I going pave the road with your bowels so your foot will find it way’" (206-7). Imamu is convinced that Perk went to Dora Belle's in the morning to have her hair done and caught her by surprise without her wig on. Sure to find Perk's body there, he enters Dora Belle's new, unoccupied house. When he does not find her right away, there is a moment of doubt:
He had laid everything—his experience, his knowledge, his street thing, his instincts—on this search. Everything that had been sharpened by his short and insightful suspension between two worlds had been into this, and everything had failed.
After all, his "suspension between two worlds" does not fail; he finds Perk's body in a freshly cemented grave in the cellar. Imamu reveals Perk's death to be an accident: Dora Belle confesses that she attacked Perk in fury when she discovered her beauty to be a deception, causing her to fall and hit her head. Yet, as in Thief of Hearts, uncovering the guilty person's identity does not reestablish dichotomies. Guy deconstructs the binary of either/or, of inside/outside, in that Imamu arrives at the solution of the case through "the suspension between two worlds" (214). The categories of good and evil are also dissolved. Imamu understands that Dora Belle's violent reaction toward Perk only discloses her to be the victim of an immense pressure to lead a successful life according to the standards of the white dominant order. Her physical attractiveness and most of all her "good-hair-nearer-to-white" serves as a means to compensate for her "ethnic inferiority." The same is true for Ann and Peter Aimsley. They tried to negate their Harlem history, a life in dirt, aggression, fear, and unemployment, in their exaggerated efforts to present an immaculately clean "Hansel and Gretel household" and in their "twisting things into right-wrong, pretty-ugly, good-bad" (242). Even Ann's commitment to the cause of giving "our own a chance" can be seen as a way of making up for her own Harlem past. With the solution of the mystery of Perk's disappearance, more secrets and lifetime deceptions are revealed: the tragedy of Mrs. and Mr. Briggs, who were the epitome of success in the neighborhood, and Ann Aimsley's jealousy of Dora Belle. Even the intellectual pride and innocence about what life really is like, which has led Gail to compartmentalize the world in binaries, are revealed to be a disguise to protect her from hurt.
At the novel's end, Imamu is still a stranger to Brooklyn; he returns to Harlem to live with his mother. He has gained an awareness of his new subjectivity dependent upon his suspension between the two worlds. His diverse experiences with emotional closeness and responsibility and with violence and fear enable him to look at life and the people he is related to from various angles: "Sure, it stood to reason, that being out there had given him advantages. But they'd never see that. They were programmed to suffer the pain of his being disadvantaged for their own benefit…." (Guy  1992, 239) and "Folks like her just didn't see the disadvantages as being a plus" (245). Imamu's search for identity is still not complete. He quite consciously takes another route that will lead to broadening his horizon: "And the way I see it, a dude got to keep moving from where he's at…. You ain't losing me, you know. I'm just expanding" (246).
Beyond Boundaries: Departure toward Hybridity
Both Thief of Hearts and The Disappearance deny their young readers the affirmative ideology of traditional detective novels, subverting the conventional reader's expectations of finding the world divided into good and bad. In neither one of the two novels does the detective's superior command of the situation grounded in unified subjectivity offer orientation to juvenile readers. Yep's and Guy's message is conveyed especially through the fragmentary, heterogeneous vision of their detectives. In both novels, the key to the solution of the cases does not lie in the logic and rational capacities of the individual, but rather in the protagonists' insight into the fragmentary, provisional, and temporary nature of truth. This insight arises from the displacement that migration imposes upon migrants and their descendants. Yep and Guy propose a notion of ethnic identity liberated from the restrictive concept of rootedness and cultural, racial, or national purity. The solution of the criminal case is not the end of the protagonists' quest for self, but a starting point for new routes. In Thief of Hearts, the clash of dominant and marginalized cultures provides the framework for the search for identity; The Disappearance explores the differences within a single cultural group. Both novels accentuate the creative powers inherent in border crossing and celebrate the interstices as the spaces from where hybrid and fluid subject positions can be constructed. The process of "inadvertent learning" (Gosselin 1999, 4) is not, however, restricted to the novels' function as models for the individual juvenile reader. Language represents and depicts our world, but most of all, language creates and shapes worlds. In articulating the experiences of migrants and their descendants in contemporary America, both Yep and Guy "write back" against oppressive homogenizing discourses of literary canonization and ethnic marginalization within the borders of the United States. Yep's and Guy's novels contribute to the formation of a hybrid society that acknowledges the multifarious voices of ethnic minorities "as an indigenous or native narrative internal to its national identity" (Bhabha 1994, 6). With their writing, Yep and Guy open routes toward a common attitude of mind in which movement and border crossing are paramount.
Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.
Fanon, Frantz.  1986. Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto.
Freese, Peter. 1992. The Ethnic Detective: Chester Himes, Harry Kemelman, Tony Hillerman. Essen: Die Blaue Eule.
Gosselin, Adrienne Johnson. 1999. "Multicultural Detective Fiction: Murder with a Message." In Multicultural Detective Fiction: Murder from the "Other" Side, edited by Adrienne Johnson Gosselin, 3-14. New York: Garland.
Guy, Rosa.  1992. The Disappearance. New York: Bantam.
Hall, Stuart, 1996. "New Ethnicities." In Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, edited by David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen, 441-49. London: Routledge.
Lowery, Ruth McKoy. 2000. Immigrants in Children's Literature. New York: Lang.
Rushdie, Salman. 1991. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991. London: Granta.
Yep, Lawrence.  1997. Thief of Hearts. New York: HarperCollins.
NEW GUYS AROUND THE BLOCK (1983)
Catherine D. Buckhalt (review date November 1988)
SOURCE: Buckhalt, Catherine D. "New Guys around the Block, by Rosa Guy." English Journal 77, no. 7 (November 1988): 90.
Imamu Jones' life is a wreck [in New Guys around the Block ]. His mother is in the detoxification unit of a Harlem hospital, and he has no job. Imamu hopes to refurbish their apartment before his mom returns. Enter brothers Olivette and Pierre Larouche—smart, cultured, and mysterious. They offer assistance and friendship; Olivette convinces Imamu to work toward a better life. So, when the police recruit Imamu's help in solving the "phantom" burglaries, he never suspects his detective work will lead to Pierre and Olivette. Rosa Guy understands repressive ghetto life. The language is often crude, but an older teenage audience will enjoy this powerful and soul-searching mystery.
MY LOVE, MY LOVE; OR, THE PEASANT GIRL (1985)
Rhoda Zuk (essay date winter 1997-1998)
SOURCE: Zuk, Rhoda. "The Little Mermaid: Three Political Fables." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 22, no. 4 (winter 1997-1998): 166-74.
[In the following essay, Zuk discusses three different modern reinterpretations of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, asserting that Guy's My Love, My Love; or The Peasant Girl functions as a postcolonial retelling of the tale.]
Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid (1837) is a remarkable fairy tale, not least because its exemplary heroine actively plots to marry above her station. Unlike the usual run of female protagonist, whom "the fairies will reward with … a perfect husband" if only she "sacrific[es] herself" (Zipes, Myth 30), the mermaid bargains away her voice to gain the world, a prince, and through him an immortal soul. The narrative endorses, yet refuses any definitive realization of, these ambitious intentions. The story of the mermaid's self-exile from the sea and acculturation into humanity recapitulates the grotesque and painful transformations suffered by the exotically foreign and racially marked subject aspiring to be on equal terms with a "superior" race. Andersen's narrative adumbrates a collective fantasy whereby the "Other's" tragic relation to "Empire" would be happily resolved. But the story of the mermaid's struggle to transcend the physical difference and cultural and spiritual conditions of her underwater race problematizes imperialist and class-based morality.1 When the prince fails to recognize her extraordinary merit and anguished love, omniscient providential authority, which does acknowledge her worthiness and sacrifice, monitors a continued rise through the ranks to paradise. The mermaid becomes an aerial spirit serving an apprenticeship in a sentimental purgatory. Thus the heathen and untutored mermaid, despite having internalized dominant values, remains a marginal figure. Deep acceptance of the self-deprecating supplicant is promised but indefinitely deferred.2
That this achievement of the colonized consciousness, problematic in itself, is filtered through the process of feminine identity construction taxes the narrative still further and points to what Carole Pateman calls the "repressed problem" (2) of women's social function in the capitalist state.3 This filtering is reflected, in narrative terms, by Andersen's wedding of two disparate genres, the male bildungsroman and the female marriage plot.4 The heroine's aspiration to progress and perfection is forwarded by the virtues appropriated from feudal romance by the male bourgeoisie, including imaginative sympathy, resourcefulness, courage, and self-discipline. Yet the tale is also predicated on the marriage quest, although in the end the mermaid renders invisible care to the sick and the young, not to a husband. Thus The Little Mermaid exposes the unresolved contradiction in political theory and practice between women's particular, sexualized role and the normative (masculine) value of autonomy.
It is a feminist insight amounting to a truism by now that normative theories of the state, in consigning women to the private and men to the public realm, fail to "take account of the dialectic between individual and social life" (Pateman 28). Women are associated with birth and the maintenance of life, men with the rational capacity to make moral decisions. Since the inception of modern contract theory in the seventeenth century, the usual view of women's duty as citizens has comprised a conceptual paradox: the female activity of providing life-giving, life-enhancing care is at once natural and obligatory. The female body is construed as entailing primary responsibility for the undeniably necessary work of sustaining affective social life. Yet women's relegation to the devalued space and time of contingent social relations compromises their desire to share the privileged male status of moral autonomy. And so the mermaid must sacrifice for the welfare of the prince, who oafishly overlooks it (Solomon 145). She does so, however, to further her own self-conceived ends. The Little Mermaid's ambivalently rendered plot and provisional resolution mark it as a fable of modern culture's feminine dilemma, that of the false choice between fulfilling feminine sexual functions and realizing female desire.
Significantly, several versions of The Little Mermaid, variously refracting the discourse of contemporary race, class, and gender identity politics, have been published in America since the mid-1980s.5 The reemergence of Andersen's narrative occurs within an embattled context. In the wake of a twenty-year explosion of emancipatory consciousness, changing the self is not merely a matter of will: the lived experience of personal memory, group praxis, and persistent systemic discrimination complicate and seemingly confound the quest for individual and collective transformation. Two versions of The Little Mermaid, Rosa Guy's novel for adolescents, My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl (1985) and Walt Disney's film The Little Mermaid (1989), are of especial interest in their relinquishing of Andersen's bittersweet, sadly hopeful conclusion about the incorporation of women into society on equal terms. In each case, the answer is the same: women's desire to live outside their historically constituted worlds cannot be realized, since the terms of heterosexual relations are unalterably against them.
Guy's novel and Disney's film retain Andersen's narrative engagement with the operation of imperialist power and class-based authority. Guy, born in Trinidad, emigrated to America at the age of seven; she has been shaped by her experience in the civil rights movement, and, since her forties, has traveled to Africa and lived in Haiti for periods of time. Her novels are invested with her experience of race, class, and gender struggle (see Eastman; Guy, "Spirit"; Norris). The Disney studio, on the other hand, consistently mythologizes the unequal distribution of social power, as various critics have noted (see especially Project, St. John, Willis). Guy's novel critiques the postcolonial state and the transnational economy. Disney's film celebrates imperialist aggression and mystified social relations. Both texts, however, replicate Andersen in foundering on the crises of feminine desire and legitimation. The common formulation of the redemptive love of woman in Guy and Disney suggests that the pathos of feminine subjection remains the silent heart of ideology within both progressive political consciousness and the popular imagination. Mediating their most precious desires through men, the young women in these fantasies produced in the 1980s, like the mermaid in the nineteenth-century model, cannot but lose agency. While Andersen's heroine ends a virginal dependent, Guy's is an abject maternal figure and Disney's an oedipal daughter. The mermaid fable dwindles, inevitably, into sexual typology. These contemporary reinscriptions of the gender politics of the early nineteenth century call for a feminist historicist analysis.
The Misfortunate Lady and the Marriage Plot
Andersen's tale delineates the movement, effected by courage, surrender, and the operation of divine grace, from heathen intuition to Christian understanding and salvation. The mermaid longs for a departure from herself and her homeland—a fantastic but ephemeral underwater paradise. She acquires legs so as to inhabit the humanly sexual body and partake in the pleasures of human artifice in a castle decorated with tapestries, orchestras, and fountains. She strives to earn the genuine love of a genuinely beloved prince and therefore be granted the immortal soul only marriage can ensure. Ultimately, she wants to enjoy the limitless time, space, and delights of eternity. The narrative affirms the longing to escape the boundaries of racial, cultural, and sexual identity even as it exposes the relationship between that desire and the lonely agony of the alienated outsider. In making clear that the remote and placid underwater kingdom is superficial and insidiously futile, the tale communicates a repugnance for the constrained situation of the nineteenth-century lady, while it offers no way out but through the exaggerated self-abnegation that, ironically, comprises the centrally deplorable aspect of that condition.
Despite the sea's lush abundance and serene social order, the mermaid is disposed from the outset to enter the morally superior society of men. Her own high-ranked circle is exclusively female—her father and other mermen are virtually invisible and seemingly irrelevant to her. But she is alone in her dissatisfaction with the stultifying round of feminine preoccupations. Her five sisters accede to, and her grandmother endorses, moral, aesthetic, and spiritual stasis in both day-to-day conduct and rites of passage.
The mermaid's desires are at once precise and boundless, like the distance between the sea world and the human world, which the narrator measures facetiously according to the standard of church architecture: "Many church steeples, piled one upon another, would not reach from the ground beneath to the surface of the water above" (134). No such fanciful technology can bridge the two races, however. Sea folk live three centuries and then dissolve into sea foam; earth folk do not live as long, but their immortal lives render their dust no tragedy. True love and holy matrimony can ensoul the seafolk, but mermaids cannot dance with men and sailors join mermaids only if they drown. The heroine regrets and finally resists this incompatibility.
During her childhood, while her five elder sisters are content to decorate their gardens with casually selected relics from wrecks, the macabre tokens of human death, the little mermaid's plot is a carefully cultivated pagan shrine. Its centerpiece is a marble statue of a boy, a phallic idol signaling her desire to be translated into the world of human flesh, law, and spirit. Similarly, her response to the upper world, which each mermaid is free to visit after her fifteenth birthday, is crucially differentiated from that of her sisters. One, for instance, vainly attempts to bask in the intangible, transient magnificence of the evening sky. She sees "a flock of wild swans" flying "towards the setting sun, looking like a long white veil across the sea…. She also swam towards the sun; but it sunk into the waves, and the rosy tints faded from the clouds and from the sea" (136). She has no more hope than the birds of expanding her scope of action or reaching heavenly glory. Moreover, although they are intrigued by the novelty of sky and shore and human civilization, the sisters are dispassionate about its inhabitants. One sits on an iceberg, coolly observing sailors in terror of their lives during a storm. Together the five link arms and sing to sailors, inviting them to join them in the sea—to drown. This desultory and amoral interest in the upper realm soon peters out; when, "as grown-up girls, they could go when they pleased," they become "indifferent about it. They wished themselves back again in the water, and after a month had passed they said it was … pleasanter to be at home" (137).
The little mermaid, on the other hand, demonstrates a capacity to exceed the boundaries of her socially constructed nature when she rescues a handsome prince from a shipwreck on her fifteenth (and his sixteenth) birthday. Thereafter, she will admit no impediments to joining the prince. She forsakes her home and makes a perilous journey to a sea witch to negotiate a drastic bargain for a woman's body. The latter warns, "I will prepare a draught for you … your tail will then disappear, and shrink up into what mankind calls legs, and you will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through you … at every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and that the blood must flow" (142).
In accepting this arrangement, the mermaid is motivated by more than sexual passion, and certainly by more than a rejection of the sisters' passive contentment with plenitude and luxury. Andersen's sardonic representation of the grandmother's matter-of-fact discipline and prosaic counsel to the mermaid, her youngest motherless charge, reveals the stunted affective life and the vacuous pursuits of the high-born lady. She imposes upon the debutante the same minor self-denials and discomforts she herself endures out of vanity and propriety: she makes the mermaid forgo her favorite color to dress in white, weights her head with heavy ornaments, and clips eight pinching oysters onto her tail. In insisting upon the necessity of submitting to pain and restriction if she is to occupy her exalted social station, the grandmother trains the girl to make trivial sacrifices for womanly ends; but this education prepares the mermaid, once she has knowledge of other-worldly life, to sacrifice everything for larger ambitions.
The grandmother instructs the mermaid that gaining citizenship in the human world and therefore in heaven is impossible "unless a man were to love you so much that you were more to him than his father or mother; and … all his thoughts and all his love were fixed upon you … and he promised to be true to you here and hereafter…. He would give a soul to you and retain his own as well" (140). She acquaints her with, but dismisses, this form of initiation: "Let us be happy … and dart and spring about during the three hundred years that we have to live…. This evening we are going to have a court ball" (141). The character and conduct of this conventional grande dame are ironically magnified in the sea witch's calculation and sophistry. The witch's advice and services, offered just as readily but more starkly, betoken a similarly false and compromised power. Limited by the terms of exacting ritual, she must brew her transformative potion that very night or wait "till the end of another year" (142). The brutal logic of her craft requires both self-mutilation—"My own blood must be mixed with" the draught (142)—and a grisly, Shylock-like price for the potion: she "must be paid" with the mermaid's "best possession," her voice (142). Exacting her pound of flesh, she cuts out the mermaid's tongue.
The heroine's sisters enter in turn their own much less mutilating contract with the witch to save the mermaid from the catastrophic consequences of her bargain. On the night of the prince's marriage, the sisters sacrifice their hair for a knife with which the mermaid can slaughter him, so that she can return to her original body and home. She rejects, however, this rough justice of a life for a life, choosing instead, out of love; to submit to the terms of her origi- nal contract. Her decision is just, since the prince's fidelity to the woman who he believes has saved him from the shipwreck is virtuous, although mistaken. By not marrying the mermaid, he in effect murders the actual savior—but he knows not what he does.
The prince is hampered by the mermaid's silence; without a tongue she can neither relate her deed nor attract him with her song. On the other hand, her silence is voluntary. Anxious to please, and therefore not to reveal her history or misery, she disguises the excruciating pain she experiences when she walks, dances, or climbs (heavenward) stairs and mountains. Her decision not to kill him is nonetheless illogical, insofar as the prince, who has a soul, would attain eternal life if killed, while her sacrifice entails dissolution into sea foam. But her Christlike accession to the consequences of the bargain, however irrelevant to the prince's immortal life, saves her. Having subjected herself to the merely partial efficacy of the Old Law of the sea, obeyed its stipulations, risked and endured its penalties, she surpasses its limits to win heavenly grace. Her sea-sisters' love is now superseded by the companionship of heavenly sisters—aerial, transparent spirits—and we learn that "the daughters of the air, although they do not possess an immortal soul, can, by their good deeds, procure one for themselves" (148). She will live in this world for three hundred years, the life-span of the sea-folk, and will serve humanity as she did as an embodied woman, gracefully and in invisible pain. Moreover, the child reader's conduct may lengthen or shorten her probation: "The child does not know, when we fly through the room, that we smile with joy at his conduct, for we can count one year less from our three hundred years. But when we see a naughty or a wicked child, we shed tears of sorrow, and for every tear a day is added to the time of our trial!" (148). Ironically, this reassuring tag reinstates the contractual accounting system that the mermaid has striven to escape.
The more recent versions of the tale considered here similarly transplant their heroines to new places only to reinscribe them in anachronistic modes of being. Guy and Disney extract from Andersen's plot the heroine's dissatisfaction with her native circumstances. But while Andersen's tale defamiliarizes the marriage plot, these more recent versions, in compensating for twentieth-century secularization, tend to reinstate the bourgeois myth of maidenly moral innocence and the imperative of male gallantry. Andersen's mermaid, lucid about the terms of her contract with her heathen empire, behaves in a consciously principled way; she is ready to take her lumps in order to preserve her innocent beloved. Guy and Disney reverse this scheme. Their willful heroines are in need of saving—and life as their princes know it depends upon marrying them. Andersen's hybrid narrative produces a model of high-minded femininity, whereas these other two, hinging on the enactment of male responsibility, render their protagonists victims, or at least potential victims. In Guy's novel, the mermaid is a symbol of faithful strength but inevitable alienation, and in Disney's film, a spunky but vulnerable girl next door. While Andersen's fairy tale speaks to the precarious dream of belonging to the dominant class through acceptance of its views of sexuality and materiality, Guy and Disney stipulate that patriarchal championing of a compliant feminine otherness is required for the survival of the state.
Rosa Guy: Mother-Love and Postcolonial Catastrophe
In Guy's My Love, My Love; or, the Peasant Girl, the heroine lives in a flamboyantly beautiful but deeply flawed setting—a contemporary fallen world and fool's paradise—on a tropical island known as the Jewel of the Antilles. The peasant heroine resembles the fairy tale mermaid in several ways: she is associated with the sea-god and his floods; is deprived of language insofar as her native Creole renders her mute to the ruling class, who speak Parisian French; and, having gone barefoot all her life, finds that the colonialist's shoe does not fit. In Guy's self-conscious critique of imperialist repression and brutality, the Caribbean mermaid's cheap "plastic" "too-small shoes" transform the life of the female body into an agony: "What pain! Every step she took became a new experience in torture. Every step, as though from the turning of a screw, brought barbs of agony rushing from her crushed feet through her legs, her stomach, her heart" (77).
The novel's structure parallels the scheme of Andersen's tale. The heroine, Désirée, falls in love with a young man after saving him from an automobile wreck, then nurses him only to have him taken from her while still unconscious. She consults with local vaudau sorcerers before she leaves her aggrieved family to pursue him in the distant city; endures great pain of body and soul to gain entrance to his grand home, the Castle Beauxhomme, where she rehabilitates him with peasant women's remedies; and chooses, when her beloved retains her as a mistress but remains unconscious of his indebtedness to her, not to murder him. In a striking revision of Anders- en's tale, Guy figures the heroine's sexual love for the prince as that which counteracts her impulse to destroy the oppressor:
Daniel Beauxhomme lay on his back, his breathing deep and peaceful. She raised the knife high to plunge it into his chest. But, as though sensing her presence, he turned on the side toward her and smiled in his sleep. His handsome face was soft in the early-morning light. Shafts of tenderness pierced through to the deepest part of her. In confusion she let the knife fall from her hand. She ran.
Désirée's journey toward another way of being ends with her disenchantment and meaningless death, since her prince fails to honor her maternal care. The particular failure and large consequences of the valiant but headstrong heroine's attempt to win her lover make the story not so much a cautionary tale as an expression of disappointment and fury. My Love, My Love; or, the Peasant Girl is a pessimistic fantasy of revenge and disgust that reveals a deep acceptance of the racist, masculinist, postcolonial oppressor's terms.6
Guy takes up Andersen's colonial theme and turns it on its head: her novel elaborates on the story of otherness while disclaiming the possibility, much less the morality, of submerging, disguising, or discarding the self to belong to a privileged world. This complex poetic analysis of postcolonial consciousness is muddled, however, by an overdetermination of sexual betrayal. Daniel's marriage to a woman of his own class reproduces the course of the country's past. The island's colonial history, its racism and class oppression, dooms individual advancement, social change, and national survival itself. The heroine and her beloved are shaped by a debased and debasing material and moral economy. Generations of French plantation owners, followed by more generations of postrevolutionary, postcolonial neo-bourgeois, have maintained the peasants in virtual slavery to exploit natural resources for export. The result is the devastation of the land, which the postcolonial masters have "sold … for a few pieces of silver" (3), as a peasant story-teller and moralist observes.7 Moreover, because relations between women and men, poor and rich, and black and white are infected by the psychic deformation of colonizer and colonized alike, freedom is nominal for any postcolonial citizen. Everyone is stifled by an oppressive historical consciousness: "We peasants hate them because they reject our blackness. They hate us because we remind them of theirs … that is the curse of the Antilles, created by the enslavement of our fathers" (99). The wealthy and light-skinned are intransigently and atavistically subservient to the ancient regime. Daniel's family, for instance, descended from a Frenchman and a Black peasant woman, is doomed to ignore present and apparent crises, since "Never shall the Beauxhomme be free of France. Their eyes shall forever be staring across the sea" (39). In the event, Daniel fails to seize his chance to accept his racial origins when he does not marry the heroine, an incarnation of his foremother.
Latter-day rulers continue to take their inheritance and obligations in vain, being as blind to erosion and deforestation as they are to the exposed skin of the ragged and starving people. Peasants, meanwhile, in surviving the exploitation of their land and labor, are reduced to two strategies of endurance. Some take comfort in the excitement of vaudau ritual and prophecy, in which the gods figure as projections of the sexual jealousy, petty rivalries, and egocentricity of the people but especially of the arrogant rulers. So while the sea-god Agwe maliciously torments his earth-goddess wife by means of ravaging storms, the more powerful ruling god does nothing to intervene.8 The others, the religious skeptics, find cold comfort in rum and cynicism, "shouting their grievances at each other" (14). The political order is entrenched and irrevocable: foreign ambassadors fraternize with the wealthy, so that the possibility of international criticism is precluded, and a brutal partisan police force obviates the possibility of a new revolution or even popular violence.
The meaning of the heroine's presence in any part of this hellish landscape is ambiguous and contested. Her two contradictory names, the epithet Ti Moune, meaning "orphan," and her given name of Désirée Dieu-Donnée, "god-given desire," allude to but do not capture the significance of her mysterious genealogy and miraculous appearance as an "orphan of the storm" (45). After a devasting flood, an elderly couple rescues her from the tree where her doomed mother has left her. The devout wife views the foundling as a god-given omen of good luck. The husband is reluctant, since she will be "another stomach to feed" (12), but at his wife's insistence he plucks the girl from the tree like fruit. The heroine, therefore, is associated with natural but forbidden sexuality. Whether her realization of sexual desire will generate sustaining hope or grievous destruction, salvation or damnation, depends upon another act of faith: Daniel must recognize and claim her as his beloved.
At sixteen, her body, like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, bursts out of her worn dress as she luxuriates, illicitly, in the plantation owner's brook. At the same time, Daniel crashes his sports car into a tree. She finds him and pulls him out; he is her very own orphan babe in the tree. Going so far as to bare her breasts to nestle and keep him warm, she nurses him until his father returns the motherless youth to his home in the city, still unconscious.
Désirée's stepmother, desperate on discovering the girl's intention to leave her people to find her beloved in his "castle" in the city, drags her to a vaudau ceremony. The ambiguity of the heroine's motives for abandoning her people—is she selfish or selfless?—is reflected in the gods' opposing interpretations of her mother's desertion. She hears her mother's voice speaking through possessed villagers and reflects that she both cherishes and hates it. The Virgin Mary asserts that the act was one of sacrifice, that the baby was "left … in the curve of that tree so that [she] might live" (47). The sea-god Agwe, however, claims the mother was motivated by laziness and despair—and takes credit for saving the child. He decides that
what we need is a grand romance. That is all that can save us—you, me, this Jewel of the Antilles. Love … but an all encompassing love. Let's force them to save themselves, and their immortal souls, through love…. Do you think the islanders can truly love each other? The grands hommes—can they truly love us?
If the prince fails to love the orphan peasant, Agwe "shall destroy them" (52).
Désirée inhabits a dream state of ambiguous memories and infinite, implacable desires that converge in the person of her prince. She longs for the male body, for the things of the earth, for the prosperity of her people and the reconstruction of their land. Her lover, she believes, will marry her and restore the citizenry and its island. After she has gained entrance to his palace and taken up residence as his nurse and mistress, he asks, in a moment of tenderness and noblesse oblige, "In this entire world, what can I give you?" (93). She replies: "I want those mountains green again. I want hardwood trees reaching for the sun again. I want Agwe to be kind and never to punish the good Asaka [his wife] again. I want them to work together to end misery on this Jewel of the Antilles" (93). She has, however, sought out and enslaved herself to a worthless master, coming to "believe her desires were the command of the gods" (75). Her confusion as to whom she belongs means that she never recognizes her danger and degradation. Since her lover refuses to claim her, she is lost. She shares with the aristocracy and with the gods the propensity to see and hear only what pleases her, what will fulfill her sentimental and material yearnings. Meanwhile, Daniel accepts his inheritance of fortune and a French-educated, pale-skinned wife.
To the ruling class, peasants, like natural resources, are dispensable and inexhaustible. Désirée herself is complicit in the practice of reducing all things and all people to objects of exchange. While on the road to the city she meets another Ti Moune who wishes for a home, and sends her to her foster parents to replace herself, even giving away her name: "Tell them your hopes of being their new Désirée Dieu-Donnée" (66). This impulse to fulfill the desires of child and parents, however loving, is ominous in its omission of the significance of her own specificity and class and race loyalty. She discards and then loses altogether a garish red plastic comb that a wise and generous female vendor has given her as an amulet. This token, by which means she gains admittance to the palace, is replaced by more elegant, fashionable, expensive ornaments. Like Daniel Beauxhomme's nurse, the father's former mistress who has been replaced by a wife of equal status, Désirée's place in Daniel's bed is similarly to be usurped by a woman of his own caste. Naively, or willfully, Désirée refuses her only other alternative: to achieve lesser status as commodity when foreign ambassadors solicit her as a courtesan.
The aristocracy reproduces itself through Daniel's marriage. The consequences are immediate: the heroine dies at the hands of a peasantry deformed or maddened by oppression. A peasant security man, jealous of Désirée's more privileged role within the Beauxhommes' mansion, casts the heroine out on her beloved's wedding day. "Weak from hunger and pain," she is trampled to death when policemen with truncheons disperse the crowds of peasants, anxious to partake of the wedding feast, before the hotel. Butterflies, the focus of her personal ritual of desire—she captures and wishes upon them—amass and alight on the brutal scene, striking the people with panic, and serving as a shroud for the island's disappointed desires. The god Agwe's rainstorm promises to wash away the unjust with the just. The heroine's self-abasement and social debasement betoken personal and collective ruination. No ark has been prepared, and no rainbow is forthcoming. The novel, therefore, represents a deep disillusionment with feminist, Black, and postcolonial liberation narratives. Its despairing closure reflects skepticism both about women's capacity to change through self-conscious action and about the likelihood of men acknowledging women's nurturing and potentially transformative work.9
Disney: Saved by the Phallus
By contrast, Disney's The Little Mermaid's legitimation of marriage as the primary object of social relations is at once more inanely and more programmatically conceived, constructing a struggle between carnivalesque forces of change and the authority of a nostalgically conceived past. Drawing on the genres and ideologies of American popular culture from the 1950s, the film uses the characterizations and conventions of Hollywood musical romance and the televisual family to tell the mermaid's story: she is saved to melt into the happy marital pot. Moreover, Disney recasts what Zipes identifies as its own representational type, "the moral innocence of the white Anglo-Saxon male, made in America," whose formation is necessary to create "an orderly society that could only sustain itself if irrational and passionate forces are held in check" (Brothers 25). The Disney hero, the mermaid's prince, wins a definitive victory over degenerate pretenders to power. This fantasy reinstates, unsurprisingly, the authority of the patriarchal white American.
The Disney mermaid's exotic birthplace, like that of Andersen's heroine, is characterized by ease and abundance, although its people are caricatured as feckless and incurious as well as colorful, joyful, and pleasingly suited to the authoritarian rule of Triton, the mermaid's father. Male characters predominate, in the underwater as well as the human kingdom. Ariel's six musical sisters, scantily clad and indistinguishable in their pretty inanity, like so many chorus girls in an Esther Williams film, are irrelevant. Sea creatures and birds, all male, attend and advise the heroine. The only involuntary, and most beleaguered, of these servants, Sebastian the Crab, Triton's minion and court choreographer, comprises a racist caricature of a hapless lackey. He is thick-lipped, vain of his singing and dancing, and craven: he wails his fear of becoming "de laughin' stock of de entire kingdom." The prince's servants, including a peremptory French chef and unindividuated gossipy English laundresses, exemplify the hackneyed comedy of national type. The prince, colloquial, corny, freckled, accompanied by a shaggy dog—an Opie of Mayberry in a naval uniform—is an idealized, all-American hero, not least because his attractive ordinariness appeals to the spurious erasure of class difference. Moreover, it falls to him to rescue the charming but insufficiently virile dependents of both worlds when the mermaid's revolt against her father sets in motion cataclysmic evil.
The mermaid's name, Ariel, recalls the magical island and reconciliatory themes of The Tempest and points to the tenor of Disney's political discourse in the film. For several decades, The Tempest has been politicized to an extraordinary degree by postcolonial writers and stage directors (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 189-92). Since 1960, postcolonial literary and stage productions of The Tempest have identified "the colonial with Caliban" (192), giving prominence to the character as unjustly dispossessed native. In English-speaking Canada, which has "internalized" the role of "dutiful daughter" to the English "motherland" (192), stage productions give prominence to Miranda. Ariel, in Shakespeare's text released from the bondage of the witch Sycorax by Prospero and associated with poetic imagination, becomes in Disney's The Little Mermaid the usurped king's passionate daughter. On the one hand, this resonant confusion of name and role typifies what Susan Willis identifies as Disney's practice of emptying the classic text "to trade in its signs" for the purposes of creating the illusion of a "declassed" culture (86, 85). On the other hand, the naming encapsulates The Little Mermaid's neoimperialist ideology: in releasing Ariel's father and his kingdom from the sea witch's bondage, the young prince is legitimated both as a new, improved father of an older, weaker, less progressive nation and as a more tolerant overseer of women.
The Little Mermaid's action is premised on troubled father-daughter relations. That Ariel is motherless heightens the emotional consequences of the father's directives and discipline, since no female presence mediates or consoles. This absence of traditional feminine authority brings into relief the crisis of female resistance to patriarchal subjection.10 But the narrative context condones paternal abuse by displacing paternal blame onto the king's resistance to human might. When the mermaid's father enters her bedroom and discovers her collection of human artifacts, he invokes a tempest that destroys her contraband possessions, leaving her frightened and weeping in the wreckage. This deeply disturbing outbreak of violence arises from benign if misconceived motives: he wants to protect her from the uncertain consequences of contact with the foreign humans. Clearly, Ariel needs protection, even within her own world—she narrowly escapes a shark attack, for instance—and she is indeed entirely ignorant of human ways. Triton is at fault, however, in misrecognizing the beneficent quality of the foreign race's explorations in his territory. Moreover, Ariel's refusal to obey her father's interdiction that she not frequent human shores paves the way for Ursula the sea witch to seize control of his kingdom. The film resolves the conflict between the father's right and obligation to rule and the daughter's mallgirl-like desire to collect possessions and pursue attractive if unlikely boys through her marriage to a ruler more powerful than her father. Ariel's prince, in rescuing her, also saves her homeland from an evil usurper and her father from emasculation.
The name "Ariel" recalls the transformation of the Andersen's heroine from mermaid to aerial spirit, but the acquisitive and flirtatious Disney heroine is not required to sacrifice anything. While Andersen's tale centers on the little mermaid's pure and principled nature, and Guy's on her self-defeating actions within a defeated politic, Disney's heroine is relieved of the necessity for conscious struggle on finding herself magically and painlessly transformed into a new person in the human world, a marvelous land of adventure and opportunity, where she progresses by employing her childlike charm. Prompted and aided by a committee of faithful animals, and bemusing and entrancing the prince with her ineptitude and affection, she finds that all things conspire to forward her purely romantic desires. The good-hearted, valiant hero must assume the burden of responsibility for protecting the weaker sex as well as her father, the foreign, misguided ruler overthrown by the universal underworld enemy, Ursula.
Outrageous, compelling, insinuating, and castrating, Ursula might be a Mae West with tentacles—although as reviewer Drew Fetherston comments, the girth, facial features, and voice (the actor is male) of this polymorphously endowed monster appear to be modeled on "Divine, the late transvestite diva." The sea witch's character and overly phallic body, therefore, incorporate the frisson of camp. The witch represents a thrilling but nightmarish vision of sexual perversity bumping and grinding its way into the normative territory of heterosexual innocence. When, having granted Ariel legs in exchange for her lovely voice, Ursula is visited by Trident, now compromised by his daughter's abandonment, she seizes his phallic trident and shrivels him to a sea snake.
Thereafter, to lure the prince and become ruler of the human world as well, Ursula transforms herself into Ariel's beautiful rival. This equally treacherous incarnation comprises a misogynous representation of the sexually aware and ambitious woman. With the aid of the mermaid's pure voice, which she has cheated away from her, Ursula enchants the prince in order to become his bride. But this false female is punished and humiliated for her attempt to usurp male power. Any modest realization of the mermaid's ambitions is compensated for by the demonization of the real female desire for power and flaunting of sexuality. Thinking herself alone in her dressing room, Ursula demonstrates a vicious, graceless, and immodest character; she hitches her petticoat above her knees and steps up onto a dressing table, carelessly crunching a glass—symbol of female virginity—underfoot. The animals, however, avenge Ariel, the true woman, by degrading the unbecoming bride in a slapstick performance at the altar: birds fly between her outspread legs, starfish smack her face, the prince's dog bites her behind. The frustrated Ursula returns to the sea and her own body and inflates herself to the role of false liberator, rising from the sea with the crown and upheld trident stolen from Triton, a menacing travesty of the Statue of Liberty. The prince rams her with a single, killing phallic thrust of his ship's prow, to restore the Sea King, save his own kingdom, and marry Ariel while her father looks on, chastened and approving.
Disney's narrative infantilizes the mermaid. When Ariel first achieves her dream of becoming a human girl, she sits in the shallow water of a beach, knees open, like a baby in the bath. She requires coaxing encouragement on taking her first steps. Like the original Eve, or like a wordless infant, she is innocent in her nakedness. Sebastian plots her future while she sleeps: "You are hopeless, Child," he sighs. Once housed with the Prince, Ariel comes to be schooled into womanhood—that is, into perpetual, sexualized childhood. When she takes the reins of the prince's carriage, she loses control of the horses. She is ignorant about table manners, including the function of a fork, that miniaturized version of her father's trident. All heart and no brains, she is virtuous because she is incompetent; she is ready for guidance in all things. Propelled by undifferentiated delight in experiences and objects, swept along and away by the impulses of feeling and distracting novelty, the mermaid incarnates the sexually available shopper. She is a fit consumer-wife for a powerful, productive, paternal husband.
Guy and Disney fundamentally alter the terms of Andersen's marriage plot. Whereas marriage in the original story is but the means to the soul's end, the shortest route to salvation for the heathen female, in both contemporary stories the heroine's marital destiny determines the fate of nations. In Guy's novel the heroine's failure to marry brings on an apocalypse, and in the film it threatens an end to world freedom. Andersen's individualism is displaced therefore by a momentous and obligatory sexual contract, the wedding of tenacious female devotion to salvific male agency. A residual sanctimony drives the narrative logic; marriage comprises a new covenant according to which the imperative of the powerful and beloved man to recognize, protect, and act upon the innate genius of the faithful woman means the difference between universal salvation and universal damnation. While all three stories cover over any anxiety surrounding the exclusion of worthy applicants to polity, prosperity, and domestic contentment, the move from Andersen's wry resignation to Guy's profound dread and Disney's facile triumph reflects a pervasive and overwrought anxiety about the meaning of intimacy in American life.
In the 1980s, reevaluations and new explorations of women's affective desires and responsibilities were (and remain) central, much contested, and charged with urgency. Both Guy and Disney articulate impatient, resentful, over f simple answers to women's historically constituted, untenable social position, a position that subjugates them within the affective realm. In Andersen's story, a woman's matrimonial desire is a form of piety. That the foreign heroine shares the ethical disposition of the dominant (human) culture and invests her devotion in its ruler sanctifies her—and her alone. In Guy and Disney, marriage remains an expression of faith in sexual teleology, but evokes the insidious hope that erotic choice, the will to be happy, must override and confound prohibitions to freedom and felicity. The pursuit of heterosexual love, which galvanizes the heroine in each of the three narratives, ultimately diminishes her. This textual irony provokes interrogation of marriage as an institutionalized ideal around which all women must situate themselves.
Andersen's, Guy's, and Disney's narratives may be read as illuminating the preoccupations of, respectively, a colonial, a postcolonial, and a neo-imperialist ideology. Although contextually diverse, the texts have in common an enormous investment in formalized heterosexual union. Intriguingly, though, Andersen's nineteenth-century tale, in circumventing the heroine's marriage, at least owns the possibility that other feminine destinies might be invented and pursued. Neither of the contemporary narratives captures the promise embedded in the original narrative. Rather, each constructs the imperative of a conclusive social shift to enable women's radical departure from their designated social place, while at the same time denying that the unequal distribution of power between the sexes can be changed. In My Love, My Love, history is destiny. Guy, in ascribing the heroine's death to her hubris and the will of her native gods, elevates the drama of the young woman's erotic desires and moral choices to the realm of mythic tragedy. Mythification also inflects the Disney plot's political trajectory, inasmuch as the text subscribes to the exasperating model of the wholly domesticated female. That the latter two versions of The Little Mermaid envision difference as even more insuperable and categorical than it was in Andersen's time arises, at least in part, from the social and rhetorical struggle ensuing upon collective bids for freedom and independence. If My Love, My Love reflects psychological exhaustion, Disney's The Little Mermaid bespeaks a deplorable mean-spiritedness. Together they point once again to the need for newly imagined modes of being and desire.
1. Similarly, while much popular culture is characterized by false syntheses of antagonisms between the dominant and the dominated, Jerry Phillips argues that The Secret Garden (1911) is an "embryonic commentary" on the Empire's need to evolve new discourses of power at a time when "imperial certainty" is increasingly displaced by "ideological uncertainty" (169). Burnett's novel, says Phillips, illustrates the process of emergent ideology: it incorporates but fails to synthesize "discrete ideological values" (170) deriving from the discourse of the Empire, of domestic class relations, and of childhood. Andersen's The Little Mermaid is also characterized by unresolved contradictions between discourses of power; the author "placed power in divine providence, which invariably acted in the name of bourgeois essentialist ideology" (Zipes, Subversion 80).
2. Andersen, not conventionally pious, nonetheless ascribed his own tortuous transformation—from impoverished child to literary lion—to innate genius and the fortuitous workings of Providence. On the other hand, he knew to his sorrow that the social clite is wary of strangers, prepared to offer only grudging respect to the occasional gifted outsider, who remains perennially ill at ease. See Elias Bredsdorff's biography for amplification of this view, as well as Lederer 169-72. Zipes asserts that Andersen's tales "represent the creative process of a dominated ego endeavoring to establish a unified self while confronted with a dominant discourse which dissociated this identity" (Subversion 80). The mermaid's narrative therefore typifies "the fundamental ambiguity of the dominated discourse in Andersen's tales," which "cannot represent the interests of the dominated class; it can only rationalize the power of the dominant class so that this power becomes legitimate and acceptable to those who are powerless" (84).
3. See also Dorothy Dinnerstein's groundbreaking feminist psychoanalytic treatment. Pil Dahlerup includes a range of theoretical treatments of The Little Mermaid that conclude that it is a troubled narrative, and Robert Solomon examines the tale in relation to transplanted and subjugated wives in prairie fiction.
4. Susan Fraiman views the genre of female bildungsroman as existing, like "femininity" itself, tentatively and complicatedly; she discusses "a competition of narratives, referring less to the apprenticeship of a central figure than to a drama of dissonant ideas about just what formation is or should be" (140). The Little Mermaid illustrates this "competition."
5. Two versions not taken up here include Jane Yolen's "Undine" (in Dragonfield and Other Stories, 1985) and Robin Morgan's The Mer-Child (1991). Yolen focuses on woman-centered restoration of the physically and psychically wounded child, and Morgan on a similar "healing" achieved through androgynous interaction. This deployment of Andersen's narrative typifies the strategy of one strand of feminism, which seeks to remedy social injustice through self-actualization.
6. On one level, Guy's novel reflects a narrative pattern in French Caribbean women's writing as identified by Elizabeth Wilson: the female protagonist's "life is depicted as tragically limited and her efforts at resistance doomed to failure," but "The journeys she undertakes become" not only a "voyage d'evasion, an attempt to escape, but also … a journey within, to self-awareness" (47). Ultimately, Wilson concludes that within the works with which she illustrates her argument, the protagonists experience "a progression, a deepening awareness and a cause for hope" (56). Guy's protagonist, on the other hand, does not negotiate the complexities of her oppressed situation, but, as wish fulfillment clashes with reality, proceeds blindly and resolutely to her death, like a Greek hero condemned by the Fates. By hinging personal and national liberation on the oppressor's recognition of maternalized sexuality, the novel closes other avenues of postcolonial women's resistance.
7. Patrick Taylor explains the postcolonial pattern in the Caribbean in similar terms: for instance, after "the Haitian Revolution [that] occurred at the end of the eighteenth century…. The people were left to be exploited by foreign capitalism and its agents, the intermediary bourgeoisie" (68-69).
8. According to Taylor, "Vaudou is the classic example of the mythical encoding of experience in the Caribbean…. As in the tradition of the African high god, Bon Dieu is a remote being who has left his affairs in the hands of the other spiritual beings" (98).
9. The Broadway musical Once on This Island (1990), based on Guy's novel—and produced the year after the Disney film, also a musical, was released—coarsens My Love, My Love's lyrical treatment of alienation in appending a fatuous coda that celebrates harmonious race relations: an interracial marriage takes place under the tree into which the heroine has been transformed. Like Andersen's disappointed mermaid, who, having failed to marry, evaporates into a transparent, fragrant spirit, Once on This Island's heroine ends, reassuringly, as a beneficent spirit. In other words, the genre of musical fantasy displaces Guy's fatalism about the burden of race, class, and national history to project redemptive sexual coupling into a dehistoricized, uncontextualized future.
10. Ariel Dorfman notes that "rivalries, envy, and tension … dominate family relations in Disney" (54); A. Waller Hastings also points out, as an instance of Disney's "conscious effort to preserve children's movies with no alarming moral ambiguities," that revisions of fairy tales typically include "the imposition of generational conflict, absent from the original" (84). In The Little Mermaid, as in other Disney fairy tales, he says, "the conflict between parent and child proves illusory" (88). Roberta Trites observes moreover that in omitting Andersen's female community to forward the father-daughter conflict, Ariel's tale is reduced to an easily resolved psychosexual drama: "The value system that controls the plot has been established: Ariel must choose between her father and the human prince" (146). Another of Trites's observations, that "the collapse of Ariel's obsession with human artifacts into the pursuit of one perfect man indicates … that no goal matters as much as hunting for a mate" (146), deserves more emphasis; the prince mediates the heroine's consumerist desire, since through him she has access to the plenitude of human products.
Andersen, Hans Christian. The Little Mermaid. The Complete Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales. Ed. Lily Owens. New York: Gramercy, 1984. 134-48.
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989.
Bredsdorff, Elias. Hans Christian Andersen: The Story of His Life and Work, 1805-75. London: Phaidon, 1975.
Dahlerup, Pil, Coordinator. "Splash! Six Views of ‘The Little Mermaid.’" Scandinavian Studies 62 (1990): 403-29.
Dinnerstein, Dorothy. "The Little Mermaid and the Situation of the Girl." Contemporary Psychoanalysis 3 (1967): 104-12.
Dorfman, Ariel. The Empire's Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds. New York: Pantheon, 1983.
Eastman, Beva. "Rosa Cuthbert Guy." Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. Ed. Sandra Pollock and Denise D. Knight. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1993. 252-57.
Fetherston, Drew. Rev. of Disney's The Little Mermaid. Newsday 15 November 1989: II, 7.
Fraiman, Susan. Unbecoming Women: British Women Writers and the Novel of Development. New York: Columbia UP, 1995.
Guy, Rosa. "The Human Spirit." Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference. Ed. Selwyn R. Cudjoe. Wellesley: Calaloux, 1990. 128-33.
———. My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl. 1985. New York: Holt, 1990.
Hastings, A. Waller. "Moral Simplification in Disney's The Little Mermaid." The Lion and the Unicorn 17 (1993): 83-92.
Lederer, Wolfgang. The Kiss of the Snow Queen: Hans Christian Andersen and Man's Redemption by Woman. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.
The Little Mermaid. Screenplay by John Musker and Ron Clements. Dir. John Musker and Ron Clements. Walt Disney Pictures, 1989.
Norris, Jerrie. Presenting Rosa Guy. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
Pateman, Carole. The Disorder of Women: Democracy, Feminism, and Political Theory. Cambridge: Polity, 1989.
Phillips, Jerry. "The Mem Sahib, the Worthy, the Rajah and His Minions: Some Reflections on the Class Politics of The Secret Garden." The Lion and the Unicorn 17 (1993): 168-94.
The Project on Disney. Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.
Solomon, Robert. "The Prairie Mermaid: Love-Tests of Pioneer Women." Great Plains Quarterly 4 (Summer 1984): 143-51.
St. John, Thomas. "Walter Elias Disney: The Cartoon as Race Fantasy." Ball State University Forum 24.3 (1983): 64-70.
Taylor, Patrick. The Narrative of Liberation: Perspectives on Afro-Caribbean Literature, Popular Culture, and Politics. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.
Trites, Roberta. "Disney's Sub/Version of Andersen's The Little Mermaid." Journal of Popular Film and Television 18.4 (Winter 1991): 145-52.
Willis, Susan. "Fantasia: Walt Disney's Los Angeles Suite." diacritics (Summer 1987): 83-97.
Wilson, Elizabeth. "‘Le voyage et l'espace clos’—Island and Journey as Metaphor: Aspects of Woman's Experience in the Works of Francophone Caribbean Women Novelists." Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature. Ed. Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 1990. 45-57.
Zipes, Jack. The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World. New York: Routledge, 1988.
———. Fairy Tale as Myth/Myth as Fairy Tale. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1994.
———. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization. New York: Methuen, 1988.
Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 September 2002)
SOURCE: Review of My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl, by Rosa Guy. Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 17 (1 September 2002): 1253.
Trinidadian-born Guy (The Sun, the Sea, and a Touch of the Wind, 1995, etc.) offers an excruciatingly atmospheric retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid [in My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl ].
On a Caribbean island known as Jewel of the Antilles, the young orphan Désirée Dieu-Donné must straggle to find her way in a world chat has no place set aside for her. Like just about everyone in her village, she works in the fields of Monsieur Galimar, the local grand homme who owns all the land nearby, but she dreams of greater things. One day she discovers another grand homme, the young Daniel Beauxhomme, half-dead on the road from a car crash, and she takes him home to nurse him back to health. Before he's fully recovered, however, his wealthy father arrives and makes him return home. Daniel is still in bad shape, though, as is Désirée—who has fallen in love with him. Determined to find him, she sets off on a long journey to the grand seaside hotel owned by Daniel's family. There, she discovers him, still teetering on the brink. Désirée knows a great deal about the secret charms and potions of the backwoods healers, however, and in no time at all she has restored him to health. Daniel's family is grateful, and Daniel himself more than grateful: he's fallen in love with Désirée. Soon she's living in the hotel as his mistress, tended to by an army of beauticians, couturiers, and servants. But her happiness is short-lived: Daniel's family expects him to marry, after all, and a peasant girl with no family or dowry doesn't exactly fill the bill. A more suitable match is arranged with the daughter of Monsieur Galimar. Désirée is cast out, forced to watch her lover's marriage from outside the church.
Bring on the violins: a hopelessly two-dimensional story rendered more so by its sentimentality.
Jeff Zaleski (review date 30 September 2002)
SOURCE: Zaleski, Jeff. Review of My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl, by Rosa Guy. Publishers Weekly 249, no. 39 (30 September 2002): 49.
Guy (Bird at My Window ) reimagines Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Little Mermaid [in My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl ], setting it on an island in the Antilles and turning it into a fable of racial injustice. Young, innocent Désirée Dieu-Donné, a dark-skinned peasant, comes across a car wreck while wandering alone in the jungle. The victim of the crash turns out to be Daniel Beauxhomme, the handsome son of wealthy light-skinned urban entrepreneur Gabriel Beauxhomme. No sooner does Désirée lovingly nurse Daniel back to health than his family whisks him back to his pampered former life. Désirée, heartsick, tracks Daniel down at his mansion. She makes her way past vicious guards to Daniel, who remembers her. They have a brief, intense affair, ended abruptly when the young man's haughty fiancée returns from a vacation and throws Désirée out of the house. The bitter tale of prejudice is cathartic, if not particularly nuanced. Guy's evocative, lyrical prose makes the appearance of fantastical elements—such as Death personified with a glowing cigar clenched between his teeth—feel natural. Less convincing are the emotions portrayed: Daniel speaks of Désirée as "a girl who has given me hope," and after Désirée wins Daniel's approval, we read that her "dreams were now a reality." These recycled turns of phrase mar the novel, which in spite of Guy's adroit storytelling is disappointingly slight.
Forecast: Originally published in 1991, Guy's novel was the basis for the popular 1990 Broadway musical Once on This Island, which is still frequently performed. Tie-in sales are a possibility, but may be limited since the novel and the musical have different titles.
AND I HEARD A BIRD SING (1987)
Catherine D. Buckhalt (review date November 1989)
SOURCE: Buckhalt, Catherine D. Review of And I Heard a Bird Sing, by Rosa Guy. English Journal 78, no. 7 (November 1989): 80-1.
Life is wonderful for Imamu Jones [in And I Heard a Bird Sing ]. His mother is adjusting to an alcohol-free life; their Brooklyn home is safe; his delivery job gives him security. But conflict is never far from Imamu. He is mysteriously drawn to the wealthy Maldoon family. Is an eighteen-year-old black delivery boy an acceptable friend for crippled Margaret? Could beautiful Aunt Charlotte be attracted to him? Has good-intentioned Imamu been set up again? Ever the detective, Imamu shuns all warnings, and when Margaret is murdered, he sets out alone to find the culprit. High-school readers will enjoy solving this mystery and anticipating Imamu's next adventure.
BILLY THE GREAT (1992)
Elizabeth S. Watson (review date March-April 1993)
SOURCE: Watson, Elizabeth S. Review of Billy the Great, by Rosa Guy, illustrated by Caroline Binch. Horn Book Magazine 69, no. 2 (March-April 1993): 195.
An interesting perspective on prejudice subtly underlies [Billy the Great, ] this lively story of Billy's budding friendship with Rod, the new kid next door. From the moment of his birth, Billy's mother has big plans for her son: "My Billy's going to be a teacher … a university professor … a doctor." When ten-year-old Rod and his parents move into the neighborhood and Billy, now six, wants to play with Rod—whose father is a truck driver, complete with tattoos—his mother is uncomfortable. "He's too old … too rough … too big" are her superficial objections motivated by intellectual snobbery and class consciousness. The conflict is mild and easily resolved, but the situation raises enough questions to promote discussion about this subtle form of prejudice. Binch's illustrations are immensely appealing and perfectly catch the nuances of the story, from the boys' exuberant play to the parents' momentary anger.
THE MUSIC OF SUMMER (1992)
Carol Fox (review date September-October 1992)
SOURCE: Fox, Carol. Review of The Music of Summer, by Rosa Guy. Book Report 11, no. 2 (September-October 1992): 48.
Black 18-year-old Sarah, leaves hot New York and her mother's relentless pressure for her to become a concert pianist for a visit with her friend Cathy on Cape Cod [in The Music of Summer ]. Cathy has a new group of friends, and Sarah is confronted by the "disease of this hemisphere," the prejudice that light-skinned blacks have against those with darker skin. Sarah also meets and falls in love with Jean-Pierre, a young man who is involved in restoring Africa and African pride. Cathy's jealousy and the cruelty of her friends almost results in Sarah's drowning. Jean-Pierre saves her and they become lovers, but Sarah chooses her scholarship at Julliard over life in Africa as his wife. Unfortunately, the themes of this book are more declared by the author than revealed or illuminated by the story, which weakens both the characterizations and the plot. Jean-Pierre never comes across as a man in love but as a set of political theories. The reader can never understand why Sarah ever had a friendship with the nasty Cathy. The ending is pat; nowhere do we feel the pain of the lovers' parting. This book has significantly less to offer than Edith Jackson, another book by Guy that I highly recommend.
Eley, Holly. Review of New Guys around the Block, by Rosa Guy. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4200 (30 September 1983): 1046.
Criticizes New Guys around the Block as an "unbalanced and unbelievable fiction."
Norris, Jerrie. "Urban Strife on Suburban Streets." Christian Science Monitor (15 October 1979): B4.
Offers a positive assessment of The Disappearance, complimenting Guy's "compelling and suspenseful story."
Walker, Alice. Review of The Friends, by Rosa Guy. New York Times Book Review (4 November 1973): 26.
Praises Guy's prose in The Friends, calling the text a "very important book."
Additional coverage of Guy's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 4, 37; Black Writers, Ed. 2; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 14, 34, 83; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 26; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 33; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; and Something about the Author, Vols. 14, 62, 122.