In Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones explores what it means to be a family. Set in Atlanta, first Dana tells the story, then Chaurisse, before Dana closes it off. We get to know each sister intimately, from multiple perspectives. These two sisters grow up very differently, and from each of their stories, we get to build a more complete picture of the characters in this book. The question that remains is James’ motivation. What drives his choices? With only half the story, he’d come across as a caring, hard-working husband and father. Could the other side of him just be ordinary, with no special reason or motivation?
Jones kept my attention in this book. I wanted to know how the worlds would collide and what would be the impact. What would be the cost of the deceit and messiness of the characters and who would pay the price?
This is really a coming of age story as each girl builds her identity from the experiences and templates of those around her. We see how the mothers grew up and that their coming of age experience impacts the way that they raise their daughters.
Themes in this book
How does it affect your life if your family is a secret and what’s it like to live in the dark, unaware of who or what might be happening in your shadow? Jones explores race with a light touch, as a backdrop to the larger issues of sexuality and statutory rape, friendship, family, bigamy, adultery, and parenting. When all is said and done, who are the villains in this story and who are the heroes? This is harder to answer than I expect, and no one is exempt from heartbreak.
I remember my great-grandmother saying that men will be men and what matters is who has the ring on their finger. I never felt comfortable with that even though I could see evidence of it in my community, growing up as a child in St. Lucia. I remember two families both being at church, and brawls between the women and children who shared a husband/father, in a predominantly Catholic community. I don’t remember how the community responded since the women lived within 1km of each other. I suspect each woman had her supporters and friends and life carried on. What I do remember is speculation about how the man could afford two families and two homes.
Your father has promised to sponsor your education,” she said. “That’s the best he can do. Bigamy is expensive
At the age of five, in Kindergarten, Dana found out that her family was a secret. She found out because her beautiful drawing of her family, with another family in the background at kindergarten did not delight her parents as she expected; instead, it had her father explaining the way of things to her.
Dana, you are the one that’s a secret.
Gwendolyn didn’t set out to have an affair but she knew she was spending time with a married man. She met him at the store where she worked when he was buying a gift for his wife. She teased him over his choice of gift, a knife, and he bought her a gift of perfume in response. Three months later, when he invited her for coffee, she reluctantly accepted.
And this is how it started. Just with coffee and the exchange of their long stories.
After that initial meeting, where Gwen rode in the back of a limousine while James drove, they kept seeing each other once a week. Gwen was divorced and living in a rooming house at the time. One year later, they had built a family that met once a week, on Wednesdays.
Dana always knew about the other family, Laverne and Chaurisse. She didn’t initially realize that not every family went “surveiling”. This is what her mother called it when they stalked Laverne and Chaurisse.
James had help with managing his secret life. He had an adopted brother, Riley, who started living with Ms. Bunny, James’s mother, after his mother left town. Riley was born after the white employer raped his mother, and she couldn’t stand the sight of him. Riley and James were inseparable, working together in the limousine business. They started the business together, each contributing towards purchasing the limousines that they used for their business.
Officially, on paper, Riley was Dana’s father. However, he and Gwen also got married in another state. For years, the two families lived in each other’s shadow. When Dana was about 8 years old, in the summer of 1978, Riley offered to marry Gwendolyn; he was in love with her. Gwen left the decision to Dana and after asking some questions about what would change in their life, Dana replied that they should keep everything the same. So Gwen declined Riley.
Living on Left-overs
Dana’s choices were often dictated by Chaurisse’s. If Chaurisse was going to go to a school, Dana couldn’t. For years, it continued this way. The girls would occasionally come across each other around town, but Chaurisse never knew who Dana was. Dana and Gwen were only allowed to exist outside the realm of Chaurisse and Laverne’s consciousness. Dana never got to meet any family except James and Riley, except once.
When Ms. Bunny was on her death bed, Riley picked up Dana and took her to meet Ms. Bunny, saying that her mother was dead. They had that one meeting together, Ms. Bunny staying true to form and being loving to Dana as she was to everyone. She offered Dana one item as her inheritance. Dana chose a brooch, which Riley would have to take off her collar before they buried her. Later, when everything fell apart, Chaurisse would take the broach from Dana and never give it back.
A Life Together
Laverne and James got married when Laverne was just 14 and James 16. She’d gone to James’ home with her cousin who was interested in Riley. Knowing little of how the world worked and drunk on punch, Laverne said nothing when James laid with her. Later, after they were married and sleeping side by side on their first night, she asked James if he raped her. He stammered his way out of it, saying that she never declined.
When their baby boy was stillborn, Laverne asked Ms. Bunny if she should leave. Ms. Bunny told her she could stay as long as she wanted. This was how her life with James started, and eventually they had a baby girl, their “miracle” baby.
One day, Dana and Chaurisse run into each other at the drugstore in a local mall. They caught each other pick-pocketing, but put the items back just in time after Dana noticed the video camera, before the manager accosted them. Chaurisse thought Dana a silver girl, and wanted to be Dana’s friend.
“Silver” is what I called girls who were natural beauties but who also smoothed on a layer of pretty from a jar.
Dana wouldn’t give her number, using the excuse that it was unlisted, but Chaurisse invited her to come to her mom’s salon one day for a wash-and-set.
A Forbidden Friendship
Chaurisse and Dana carved a friendship of sorts after their official meeting at the drugstore, with Dana sometimes visiting Chaurisse at the salon. Dana even went into Chaurisse’s home one time, and looked around, getting a peak into her father’s other existence. They successfully avoided Riley and James until one day when they were going to a party.
Chaurisse and Dana were going to a party when the tire blew. Dana tried to get a boy from the gas station to help them, but Chaurisse called her dad. Learning that, Dana called her mom to pick her up and hid in the bathroom until her mother came.
In the parking lot of the gas station, James had one thought, to leave before Gwen arrived. He started to drive off but Chaurisse threw herself outside the car, slowing them down. Gwen arrived before they could leave, her friend blocking their car. Gwen confronted Riley and James and Chaurisse knew something was not right but she didn’t learn the details until later.
James stopped visiting Gwen after the parking lot incident. In response, she went to Hot Pink to speak to Laverne. Gwen showed up with Dana while Laverne was working and gave Laverne and Chaurisse the wedding certificate and Dana’s birth certificate. Laverne had never suspected anything was amiss.
Laverne took some time off and changed the lock on James, banishing him from their home. James went to stay with Riley temporarily. The jig was up and he never went back to Gwen’s. She crossed the line he’d drawn; Dana was no longer a secret.
James was contrite and apologetic to his wife and she eventually took him back even though she was never the same again.
Even if you could get her to where she looks the same, she will never be stronger than a cracked plate.
James and Riley had planned a party to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of hot Pink. Instead, James and Laverne used it as a “recommitment celebration.”
The day of the party was the last time Dana saw her father. She initially came to try to see Chaurisse, to find out if they could still be sisters. Instead, she waited for James in the parking lot, knowing that he’d need to take a smoking break. When he came down, she confronted him, trying to find out if he would walk away from her as well as her mother. He told her that he’d made his choice in response to her mom’s actions, and shoved her when she threw herself at him.
You and Gwen have turned me into an animal.
The Ending of Silver Sparrow
Silver Sparrow ends with the two half-sisters meeting in the parking lot of Dana’s daughter’s preschool. It’s the year 2000 and Dana is thirty years old with a 4-year old daughter, Flora. She’s unmarried, as is the father of her child, and her child is not a secret. She owns her house and pays her bills. And Flora attends to the same kindergarten that Chaurisse attended. Progress.
As Dana picks up Flora from school the day before Thanksgiving, Chaurisse is waiting beside her car. They haven’t seen each other in 12 years but the sisters recognize each other immediately.
We learn that Laverne and James are still together. Chaurisse asks if Dana is in touch with their father, which Dana says no to, a response that Chaurisse doesn’t seem to believe. They leave each other once again as strangers. Although Dana tries not to show it, she is shaken. As she drives with her daughter, following the same routines as her mother did with her, having her daughter practice her -at words and sing in French, she’s shaken. To ground herself, she stops and holds on tight to her daughter.
I promised that I would never grip my child. I used to swear that I would never be a desperate mother, that I would always respect the line between Flora and me. But I squeezed her hard and asked more than once, “Do you love your mommy? Do you love me, baby?”
The story ends with Dana driving home. She gets the last word.
PEOPLE SAY, THAT WHICH doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But they are wrong. What doesn’t kill you, doesn’t kill you. That’s all you get. Sometimes, you just have to hope that’s enough.