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Silver Sparrow

by Tayari Jones

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill | 2011 | 352 pages | $19.95

Reviewed by Loretta H. Campbell

tayari jones
Birds Without Feathers

This is a brave book. It addresses an issue that few books, fiction or non-fiction, broach--that of children fathered by married men outside their marriages. The problem’s affect on Black families warrants at least one sociological study.

Jones, author of Leaving Atlanta and The Untelling, centers her story primarily on the daughters inside and outside of the marriage in question. Although the perspective of the mothers is given, it doesn’t get the in-depth treatment of their girls. Dana, the “outside” daughter and the main narrator, is pitiable from the outset. “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist. He was already married ten years when he first clamped eyes on [Gwen] my mother.”

All her life, Dana has lived in the shadows of her father’s marriage. Her very existence is a secret. Her life is part denial, part farce. James is not a part of her family, even though he helped to create it.

It is 1968 in Atlanta, Georgia. The author makes it clear that contraceptive use, in this time and place, was rare.  James has made a pseudo life with Gwen for the same reason he married his wife, Laverne. He got both women pregnant. His marriage to Laverne was a shotgun wedding, but that baby died. Ten years later, he impregnated both Laverne and Gwen. They gave birth months apart.

While both families live in the same city, James’ legal family knows nothing of his other life--with one exception. Raleigh, James’ adopted brother, knows about both families.

Raleigh is the product of a different kind of secret. His father, a white man, raped Raleigh’s mother. She gave Raleigh away as soon as she could.

Abandonment is a leitmotif in this novel. Dana feels abandoned by a father that she sees irregularly and who never fully participates in her life. Her maternal grandmother left her grandfather soon after giving birth to Gwen. Dana is a child who wants to claim an identity with truth and no secrets.

The author shows how Gwen creates a corrosive envy in Dana. She insists that James give Dana the same things he gives Chaurisse, Laverne’s daughter. It doesn’t matter whether Dana wants these things or not. It doesn’t matter whether James can afford to give both girls the same things.  Jones shows the psychology, i.e., the confused thinking of a woman who has built her life around a lie.

In the author’s skillful hands, we see how, slowly and inexorably, Gwen and Dana begin to ignore societal boundaries. The mother takes her daughter out to surveil Laverne and Chaurisse. 

On one occasion, they drive by Chaurisse’s school. “Roll down your window and look out,” she [Gwen] said, “You see that chubby little girl in the blue jeans and red shirt? That’s Chaurisse.”

Dana, according to her mother, is better looking and smarter than her half-sister. Dana begins to believe she is being deprived of her rightful place in James’ life. Meaning, in her mind, she is more deserving of James’ love.

Gwen and Dana also find excuses to talk to Laverne.  Gwen is critical of the clothes Laverne wears and the beauty shop she owns and operates, etc.

Because Jones’ use of metaphor is as courageous and skillful as her subject matter, we see that Gwen is a pretty woman. Laverne is not. Gwen believes that James should love her more because she makes herself attractive for him.

Why does she twist herself and her daughter into knots over another’s woman’s husband when she can get one of her own?  Dana says it’s love.

“What she had with my father was a sort of creeping love, the kind that sinks in before you know it and makes a family of you.” Dana feels this is “God level,” but she’s trying too hard to make it sound acceptable. In Gwen, love operates like a chronic illness.

Although she says she doesn’t want to take James from his wife, Gwen insists he marry her, too, out of state.  Knowing the marriage is illegal, she simply attaches the Mrs. to her maiden name.  Technically, this makes James a bigamist. Gwen thinks this will give her a measure of control over him.

Jones gives us a clue to Gwen’s attachment to James. Once again, it is abandonment. Years after her own mother left her, Gwen left a philandering husband.

Until it becomes clear to Gwen that James can’t support her, Dana and his family, she sets herself up to be a kept woman.

Jones characterizes Gwen as conflicted. She is someone who demeans herself and her daughter over time.  

As Dana’s need for more love grows, she begins to take risks. The author details how the daughter takes the mother’s surveillance routine to the next level. Dana creates an emotional vortex that sucks in everybody in both families.

Throughout the novel, James’ behavior is just as unacceptable as Gwen’s and Dana’s. He makes Raleigh sign Dana’s birth certificate. He shows little, if any, affection or attention to the girl. While he is caring and supportive of Chaurisse, he is distant from and critical of Dana.

It’s as if he blames her for his adultery. In his case, his thinking and his actions are confused and confusing. Until the end of the book, it’s not clear how he feels about Dana. What is clear is his lack of guilt over the affair with Gwen. He symbolizes the kind of man who trivializes heartache and havoc, especially when he causes it himself.

Jones has examined, with lyrical prose and insightful imagery, a problem that has plagued our community for years. Her characters demonstrate what happens when we live with ugly secrets.

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