Silver Sparrow/ Tayari Jones SEPARATE AND UNEQUAL

                    

This is a story of sisters like no other. As anyone who has ever had a sister, known someone with a sister, a read a book about sisters, it is one of the most complex relationships. This book takes the relationship into unusual territory.  

To give you the enticing flavor of the story, this is the novel’s first line: “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.”

Silver Sparrow is divided equally (unlike James himself) between his two 14-year-old daughters. Dana who narrates the first half sees her father once a week and Chaurisse, who narrates the second half, lives a ‘normal’ life with a mother and father. The other stark difference is that Dana knows about Chaurisse.

James is no suave Denzel.  He is a stuttering, awkward limo driver who blunders indecisively through life. The only thing he is adamant about his keeping his two lives separate.

He meets Dana’s mother, the divorced, beautiful gift wrap girl, Gwendolyn, when he is buying a decidedly unromantic anniversary gift for his wife.

By the time he met Gwendolyn, James had already been married to his wife Laverne for a decade. He had gotten her pregnant when she was 14 during an unsupervised afternoon at his grandmother’s house.  They married and although she lost the baby, they stayed together. James and Laverne did not have another child until Dana was four months old.

The story is set in Atlanta. James, being the passive, trying-to-make- everyone-happy-kind as long as it didn’t impact the life he had going, takes Gwen over the state line to Alabama one day to get married. Thus, the bigamy and Gwen’s legitimate claims are rooted.

So, that’s the back story.  But at the novel’s heart are the dreams and needs of the sisters.

The first half of the book is narrated by Dana. Gwen instills in her from early on her rights—to a good education, a secure life, and the love of an every Wednesday night father who provides for them. It’s not enough for either of them but they are hopeful. Maybe in time there will be public recognition, an apartment in a nicer part of town, more security. Dana has big dreams. She is smart, studies hard and has her eyes set on an ivy league college education. But that is a long way off.

There is a particularly heartbreaking scene when little Dana shows her Daddy a school drawing she has made of her ‘family’ that looks too close to true in which he tells her not to do that anymore.

Dana has one very big advantage on her sister— the truth. Laverne and Chaurisse haven’t a clue there is another family a bus ride away. Dana holds that thought close.

The girls meet when they are in middle school after Atlanta’s citywide science fair. They are both wearing the same coat but only Dana knows this is not a coincidence. 

            “This was my sister…James was all over her face from her narrow lips to her mannish chin. I look so much like my mother that it seemed that James had willed even his genetic material to leave no traces.”

Dana arranges for them to meet at a Rite Aid. Laverne, Chaurisse’s hairdresser mother has done her first weave. She watches Dana shop lift, admires how pretty she is and longs for her beautiful long, thick, hair and thinks, ‘silver is what I called girls who were natural beauties but who also smooth on a layer of pretty from a jar.  It wasn’t how they looked, it was how they were… Dana was the silverest girl I had ever seen.’

In adolescence, isn’t it ingrained that we measure ourselves by how we look? Chaurisse decided in kindergarten she wasn’t pretty. Spending all her free time in her mother’s beauty salon probably didn’t help that self assessment.

In a 2011 NPR interview with Michelle Norris, author Tayari Jones said,

“Chaurisse thinks of a ‘silver girl’ as a girl who is better than she is…. Sparrow comes from a more traditional source. “I took sparrow from the hymn ‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow’ — being the sparrow is the least among us,” Jones says. “Because I think that’s what Dana is, she’s a silver sparrow.”

I alway love knowing where titles come from, especially when they aren’t clear to me, as in this instance.

            I was hesitant about leaving Dana’s side of the story but I didn’t need to be. Chaurisse’s narrative and that of Laverne is equally compelling as is the riveting game Dana sets in play that will upend all the pieces James never had the wherewithal to truly manage in the first place. It was one thing when the children were young and he could control them but he settled them on a fault line like that was sure to start a quake sooner or later.

Jones’ talent is rich. The symbols, the plot, the voice. It was all riveting. What complicated lives we can lead when what we desire is so simple. As the story went on, I wanted so much for these girls yet I knew their obstacles were overwhelming.

I listened to the audio and it was voiced by two excellent actresses, Rosalyn Coleman William and Heather Alicia Simms. They were perfection. Dana in particular. I would highly recommend it.

 I am one of the few people who didn’t jump over the moon for An American Marriage. I loved the beginning but was disappointed with the way it evolved. I thought the characters gave up too easily, settled for what they never would have before the arrest. I probably would have been happier if they found partners that excited them more. I was disappointed and sad for them. Maybe I gave them too much credit or the blow to them was just too much to recover from. Now that I am back in the Jones camp, I know she doesn’t always take the path of least resistance and I might go back and take another look.

She’s got a new fan.

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