Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it,
#ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
Sail On, Silver Girl
By Roxanne Fequiere
As has become my bad habit, I waited until the weekend to settle on what title to read, leaving myself with two days to complete Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow instead of five or six. I noted the book’s three hundred forty pages and hunkered down, hoping I could power through at least the first half of it by Saturday’s end. I could finish it on Sunday and stay up late to hammer out my essay then, I figured. In the end, I surprised myself by reading it from cover to cover in one sitting. I wasn’t even tempted to go outside and revel in the warmest weather we’ve had all year. All I wanted to do was delve deeper into the ever-mounting repercussions of James Witherspoon’s bigamy.
Though this explosive secret drives the entire plot of Silver Sparrow, it’s revealed in the novel’s first sentence, as narrated by Dana Yarboro, Witherspoon’s “illegitimate” daughter: “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.” She’s known the truth about her family for as long she can remember, though she had to be taught how to be discreet about it. At five, after drawing a family portrait at school that raises eyebrows—a crudely rendered image of her father and his other wife and daughter, while she, her mother, and her uncle look on, all six of them smiling—her father lets Dana know exactly where she stands. “Your other wife and your other girl is a secret?” she asks.
“No,” he tells her. “You’ve got it the wrong way around. Dana, you are the one that’s a secret.” If that sounds like an unconscionably cruel fact to lay at a child’s feet, you’re correct. Dana is left to grapple with the implications of this reality almost immediately, and she begins examining herself more closely in an attempt to fix the things that render her less lovable. Perhaps if she had her front teeth, she imagines, then her father wouldn’t want to keep her a secret.
With the support of her mother, Gwen, Dana comes to realize that she possesses exceptional beauty and intellect, but when it comes to men, she finds herself more than willing to feast on scraps. She cozies up to older boys who refuse to publicly claim her, but happily take advantage of her when no one else is around. Meanwhile, if Dana wants to attend a summer science program or get a job at Six Flags and her half-sister’s gotten to it first, her father swoops in to prevent his hidden daughter from following through. It’s not easy growing up in the shadows.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, Chaurisse has what she considers to be a thoroughly ordinary life, somewhat to her chagrin. She envies those she terms “silver girls,” naturally beautiful with a magnetism that draws other silvery types to them. She’s an average student with limited college prospects, and has always felt as though silver girls look right through her when it comes to choosing friends. When she runs into a stunning girl named Dana at a convenience store, one who seems interested in her, she’s willing to do anything she can to forge a relationship. Of course, Dana knows who Chaurisse is—she and her mother have been keeping tabs on her for years—but Chaurisse is unaware of anything but the potential to befriend a charismatic peer.
Dana and Chaurisse’s adolescence plays out against the backdrop of 1980s Atlanta, although there are detours to the ‘50s and ’60s as well, demonstrating exactly how James Witherspoon the bigamist came to have two wives and two families. The ephemera of each scene’s time stamp unfold beautifully in ways that are realistically idiosyncratic. In 1968, Gwen feels somehow guilty that she spent years playing house with a former husband when she could have been out in the streets with the late Dr. King, fighting for freedom. When Dana sneaks off to fool around with her sometime-boyfriend in his bedroom, she remembers the Jayne Kennedy posters plastered on the ceiling.
After I devoured the book and turned to my fiancé to excitedly rehash the plot in minute detail, he pointed out that the time period probably also assisted in keeping such a gargantuan secret under wraps. Digitized records, caller ID, social media—if ever there were a golden age for duplicitous bigamists, it certainly would not be in this day and age. While I craved some deeper insight into James’ psyche at times, I was pleased to see the story through Dana and Chaurisse’s eyes; they each narrate one half of the book. Girlhood can be a gnarled beast of a hurdle to clear, and it’s even tougher to navigate without the help of a friend. Watching these two form a hesitant, uneven, halfway disingenuous bond is at once gratifying and frightening. Even as there’s so much at stake, it’s clear that they need each other.
Unfortunately for my fiancé, I spilled the entire plot of Silver Sparrow to him before I realized that he should just read the book himself. I was too excited after finishing the book; I simply needed to share it—all of it—with someone. Now that I’ve had a day to process and revel in this story, I want you to do the same, so I’m going to bow out before I start gushing all over again. You don’t have to read it in one go, but you just might do it anyway. It’s that good.
by Tayari Jones
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.