Silver Sparrow

One husband – two wives – a daughter with each: one wife and daughter live in ignorant bliss; the others spy on their counterparts as they live their parallel lives in Atlanta -unknown and in secret.  In Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones creates a story with quiet drama and private misery.

James Witherspoon is a black man with a stutter  –

“…a bit on the short side and wore glasses thick as a slice of Wonder bread…”

No handsome lothario – but he did the right thing and married Laverne when he got her pregnant at 14, and then falls in love with Gwen and marries her when she becomes pregnant.

Jones uses the first half of her book to focus on Gwen and Dana’s secret life with James. Gwen has always known James is married; she’s made her peace with being the other woman, but knows how to manipulate his guilt into gifts for their daughter, Dana. Although she was working at a retail store when she met James, who came in to buy an anniversary present for his wife, she successfully completes her practical nursing degree to supplement James’s meager support.

Gwen and Dana regularly embark on “surveil” trips – to check out the other wife and daughter, their house with the attached beauty salon, what they are wearing, how they live – blackmailing James with the information, unsuccessfully trying to match their lives.  Jones makes their place as second-best pathetic yet resilient, and the masquerade could continue indefinitely – with Dana not allowed to attend the same school or work at the same summer job as her sister Chaurisse; James is determined to keep his lives separate.  If Dana would be satisfied with the deception, she could have graduated from Mt. Holyoke in South Hadley, and someday Gwen might have turned up dressed in widow’s black at his funeral.  But Dana is not happy with her secret standing, and her longing to be known as her father’s daughter is the quiet time bomb that you expect to explode.

In the second half of the book, Jones backtracks to tell the other side – Laverne pregnant at 14, losing the baby, forced to drop out of high school, giving birth to a daughter a few months after Dana is born.  After the ground work is laid, Jones begins her campaign to cross the lives of the two daughters.  They meet as teenagers, but only Dana knows it is her sister, Chaurisse, that she has been stalking.  As their strange friendship develops, Chaurisse unknowingly reveals pieces of her private life.  In a pivotal scene, the two girls have a flat tire on their way to a party.  Chaurisse calls her father for help; Dana, in a panic not to be discovered, calls her mother for a ride.  James arrives with his friend Raleigh, at the same time as Gwen, but only Chaurisse is unaware of the relationships.

At times, you don’t know who is more to blame – James for his deceit or Gwen for her complicity.   But the novel is about his daughters: one secure in her family life, not as bright or pretty as her illegitimate sister, but blissfully ignorant of her father’s deception; the other, a silver girl – beautiful and smart – who sees her father only once a week for dinner, cringing with a desperate yearning under the veil of being second-best that ruins her life.

The ending is unforgiving but realistic.  What a great book for a group discussion.  So many possibilities to think about:

What if Dana had kept away from Chaurisse?  Was her longing for a legitimate father – or was it a sister she craved?   What if Raleigh had married Gwen?  Was Laverne really that clueless or did she choose not to know?  Would you have ended the story differently?

Set in Atlanta, Silver Sparrow has the authenticity that is lacking in The Help.  No happy endings here, but a thoughtful and compelling story – that could be true.

The Wives of Henry Oades

Poor Margaret – the long-suffering wife in Joanna Moran’s The Wives of Henry Oades.

First, she follows her husband Henry from London to New Zealand to further his career. She quietly suffers the lack of civilization; he extends the one year duty to three – no discussion. Good wife that she is, of course she will make the best of it all.

But then Maori natives burn their house and capture Margaret and her four children, enslaving them for six years. What more can happen to this poor woman? Smallpox – a blessing in disguise. Quarantine is not an option – the Maori warriors think it better to kill and burn the diseased – but because she has dutifully helped the Maori women birth their children, Margaret and her children are set free in the wilderness – to survive or not.

After searching in vain after the Maori burned his house, Henry believes his family dead. To give him credit, he mourns as long as he can, and then gets on with his life – moving to California to start over and marrying a young pregnant widow, Nancy Foreland, whose husband has died in a fire.

Imagine the scene: Margaret and her children knocking on the farmhouse door, finding Henry with a new wife and child. How long was he supposed to wait anyway? He thought she was dead.

Then, Joanna Moran starts the real story of The Wives of Henry Oades – one husband with two wives, and the melodrama tempers into an examination of character.   The comparison of the two women as they each tell their tale, draws a clear contrast of wills – Margaret who has become stronger through her ordeal but has lost her youth and beauty, and young, beautiful Nancy who seems spoiled and determined to have a good life. Both want Henry as a provider.

Eventually, the late nineteenth century town discovers the dilemma and puts Henry on trial for bigamy – no less than three times. Throughout the trials, the cruel neighbors kill the cows and torture the family in the name of Christian ethics. As a result, Nancy and Margaret bond and plan an escape to start a new life.

Moran effectively holds the suspense, but the ending seems anticlimactic. At some point, you may wish Margaret to stop being so forbearing, and Henry to do right by her. Maybe the lesson is not to follow your man.

This is a fast enjoyable summer read. Published as a soft trade book; it’s not Shakespeare,

but you could stash it with the towels and bring it to the beach.