Books on Tap read Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones at Champion Brewery on March 1 as part of the NEA Big Read. Due to a high turnout and a crowded room (both good problems to have), we divided into three groups for discussion so that we could hear each other. Most of us agreed that Jones told a good story with moments of beautiful writing, but that we wouldn’t have read this book if not for the NEA Big Read.
I can’t improve on this synopsis from the NEA Big Read website:
Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta during the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s families—the public one and the secret one. When Witherspoon’s daughters from each family meet, they form a friendship, but only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich and flawed characters, she also reveals the joy, and the destruction, they brought to each other’s lives.
Dana, the “secret” sister, knows far more about the situation than Chaurisse, the “legitimate” sister who has been kept in the dark. Without a shared history, can they truly call themselves sisters? People in the group with experience thought they could have developed a relationship as adults, but that’s not how the novel unspools. The favoritism that each felt the other received from the adults in their lives (and the examples they set) proved insurmountable. Ironically, it seems Dana, whose fate was determined by Chaurisse’s casts-offs, was made stronger by her father’s cruel insistence on independence and the web of her relationships instead of reliance on a nuclear family. Interestingly, many of us thought the portions of the book that Dana narrated were more compelling than those in Chaurisse’s voice.
Their shared father James impregnated Laverne, his first wife, when she was 14 and he was approximately 19. He and his foster brother Raleigh were left to raise themselves. Laverne moves in and the trio reach adulthood as a tight unit. James decides to become a chauffeur, taking money from both of them, thus ending Raleigh’s dreams of becoming a photographer and Laverne’s formal education. This selfishness crops up again and again (both mothers and daughters wait on him hand and foot), although it could be defended as a reflection of the seriousness with which James takes his responsibility to all the members of his families. It also protects James’ self-image.
James, Raleigh and Laverne are all abandoned by parents. James, Laverne and Chaurisse are the first nuclear family in generations. Their jump to middle-class Atlanta, with access to education and security, is something to be defended fiercely, regardless of James and Laverne’s feelings about each other personally (frankly, James is not a physically attractive specimen). However, no one can escape him, and perhaps the male influence on these largely matrilineal families. Gwen and Raleigh’s abandonments stand out. Raleigh looks so white that he scares black people – including his own mother. Gwen is disowned by her father after leaving her first husband, proving that she can leave a relationship.
The secret cracks when Gwen and Dana visit Laverne’s beauty shop. We discussed why they would have done this and if Dana ever made a conscious decision to befriend Chaurisse. Did they want to change the unfair dynamic and thought this was they way they could do it with the power available to them?
Jones portrays her hometown of Atlanta, the City Too Busy to Hate, almost entirely peopled by African Americans. James and Laverne’s customers, the girls friends, Gwen’s neighbors depict the diversity of experience that is often ignored in outsiders’ depictions. The Civil Rights movement is obliquely referenced, which seems fitting for a novel that focuses so tightly on one extended family’s experience over a short amount of time.
Learn more about the NEA Big Read and JMRL’s programs
About the author
Secret children in the news: Strom Thurmond, Charles Kuralt, John Edwards
Books on Tap Information:
- The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway (April 6). Other formats available.
We will be choosing titles for the summer at the April 6 meeting. Add suggestions you have to this list.