Caucasia: A Novel

Caucasia: A Novel

4.7 29
by Danzy Senna
     
 

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In Caucasia—Danzy Senna's extraordinary debut novel and national bestseller—Birdie and Cole are the daughters of a black father and a white mother, intellectuals and activists in the Civil Rights Movement in 1970s Boston. The sisters are so close that they have created a private language, yet to the outside world they can't be sisters:

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Overview

In Caucasia—Danzy Senna's extraordinary debut novel and national bestseller—Birdie and Cole are the daughters of a black father and a white mother, intellectuals and activists in the Civil Rights Movement in 1970s Boston. The sisters are so close that they have created a private language, yet to the outside world they can't be sisters: Birdie appears to be white, while Cole is dark enough to fit in with the other kids at the Afrocentric school they attend. For Birdie, Cole is the mirror in which she can see her own blackness.

Then their parents' marriage falls apart. Their father's new black girlfriend won't even look at Birdie, while their mother gives her life over to the Movement: at night the sisters watch mysterious men arrive with bundles shaped like rifles.

One night Birdie watches her father and his girlfriend drive away with Cole—they have gone to Brazil, she will later learn, where her father hopes for a racial equality he will never find in the States. The next morning—in the belief that the Feds are after them—Birdie and her mother leave everything behind: their house and possessions, their friends, and—most disturbing of all—their identity. Passing as the daughter and wife of a deceased Jewish professor, Birdie and her mother finally make their home in New Hampshire. Desperate to find Cole, yet afraid of betraying her mother and herself to some unknown danger, Birdie must learn to navigate the white world—so that when she sets off in search of her sister, she is ready for what she will find. At once a powerful coming-of-age story and a groundbreaking work on identity and race in America, "Caucasia deserves to be read all over" (Glamour).

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Editorial Reviews

bn.com
Black Like Me

"Maybe I had actually become Jesse, and it was this girl, this Birdie Lee who...was the lie....I wondered if whiteness were contagious. If it were, then surely I had caught it....[it] affected the way I walked, talked, dressed, danced, and...the way I looked at the world and at other people."
—Birdie Lee in Caucasia

In the tradition of Nella Larsen's Passing, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and James McBride's The Color of Water, Danzy Senna's first novel, Caucasia, explores the complexity of racial discord in America. While Ellison wrote about being paradoxically marked yet "invisible" as a black American man, and Larsen grappled with issues of race, gender, and sexuality during the Harlem Renaissance, Caucasia describes the experience of the invisible sister who confronts biracial identity in post-civil rights movement America.

Birdie Lee, the protagonist of Caucasia, grows up in 1970s Boston with her older sister, Cole, her radical WASP mother, Sandy, and her intellectual African American father, Deck. Sandy was raised in nearby Cambridge -- the daughter of a Harvard professor and a socialite mother whose lineage extended back to Cotton Mather -- while Deck's more amorphous history originated in the depths of the Louisiana bayou. Although Sandy's practice of housing political exiles in many ways complements Deck's revolutionary theories about race, their explosive and intense relationship is a source of instability and concern for both Birdie Lee and Cole. Eventually, the marriage collapses, and Deck finds a new romantic interest, Carmen, a black woman who ignores Birdie Lee and favors Cole.

Birdie Lee's existence, her core, heart, and essence, revolves around Cole. As Birdie Lee recalls, "Before I ever saw myself, I saw my sister. When I was still too small for mirrors, I saw her as the reflection that proved my own existence." However, while Birdie Lee is phenotypically Caucasoid and can "pass" (as white), with her cinnamon skin and curling hair Cole clearly looks black. Birdie Lee instinctively understands that this is why

"Cole was my father's special one....his prodigy -- his young, gifted, and black.... Her existence comforted him. She was the proof that his blackness hadn't been completely blanched...proof that he had indeed survived the integrationist shuffle...that his body still held the power to leave its mark."

One day, while attending Nkrumah, the Black Power school whose motto is Black is beautiful, Birdie Lee's parents realize that their commitment to hiding subversive radicals in their basement is making them prime targets for "the pigs, the Feds, the motherfuckers in the big house." Eventually, Cole and Deck emigrate to Brazil (with Carmen), while Birdie Lee and Sandy disappear into the vastness of America. The key is that while the FBI would be searching for a white woman with a black child, Birdie Lee's ability to pass will enable them to live a chameleonlike and protected existence.

Birdie Lee and Sandy are thus transformed into Jesse and Sheila Goldman; Sandy reasons that a Jewish identity is the closest Birdie Lee will get to being black while passing as white. "Tragic history, kinky hair, good politics," she explained, "It's all there." For four years Sandy and Birdie Lee are on the lam between communes and motels, eventually settling in New Hampshire, where Birdie Lee, now an adolescent, becomes a typical teen -- experimenting with makeup, wearing skintight jeans, and flirting with boys. Sandy settles into life in the parochial, nearly all-white town and has a steady boyfriend. Yet for Birdie Lee, the continuing lie of their existence and identities becomes increasingly painful and complex, and the absence of her father and sister is absolutely intolerable.

Finally, in March 1982, a full six years after leaving Boston, Birdie Lee returns to Massachusetts, determined to find her father and sister. Although initially content to live as "a spy in enemy territory" Birdie realizes she has metamorphosed into someone she doesn't like, "somebody who had no voice or color or conviction."

Eventually, Birdie Lee locates both her father and sister, who are living separately in Berkeley, and she is heartbroken that her father hadn't searched for her merely because "it was too much of a time commitment.... [He] cared more for books and theories than he did for flesh and blood." However, finding her long-lost other half, Cole, brings Birdie Lee's physically, emotionally, and spiritually arduous journey to a joyous conclusion.

Perhaps the most trenchant observation in Caucasia comes toward the end, when Deck, still "mad and brilliant," pontifically proclaims his newly evolved understanding of race to Birdie Lee:

"...[T]here's no such thing as passing. We're all just pretending. Race is a complete illusion, make-believe. It's a costume. We all wear one. You just switched yours at some point. That's just the absurdity of the whole race game."

While Birdie Lee intellectually agrees with her father's thesis, conferring with her sister provides the crucial epiphany: In Cole's words, "He's right, you know. About it all being constructed. But...that doesn't mean it doesn't exist."

The questions of biraciality in Caucasia, inspired by Senna's own life, account for the poignancy, realistic complexity, and nuance intrinsic to the novel. Pitch-perfect period details and a superbly empathic protagonist -- upon whose body racial dissonance is literally played out -- form the backdrop to this evocative story. Without a doubt, Caucasia is one of the most sophisticated and compelling novels about race and identity to emerge in years.

—Gayatri Patnaik

New York Times
Haunting and deeply intelligent.
People Magazine
...[A]bsorbing, affecting...
Elizabeth Schmidt
Superbly illustrates the emotional toll that politics and race take on one especially gutsy young girl's development.
The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Set in 1970s Boston, this impressively assured debut avoids the usual extremes in its depiction of racial tension. As children, Birdie and her sister, Cole, create their own secret language--Elemeno--to ward off the growing tension between their black father and their white mother. Finally, Mom and Dad split up one time too many, and no amount of Al Green records, Chinese noodles and slow dancing can bring them back together. Cole, whose complexion is darker than her sister's, gets caught up in her new, black nationalist Nkrumah School in Roxbury and in her father's new life with a black girlfriend. Birdie, pale enough to be mistaken for white, stays close to Mom, mourning her estrangement from Dad and especially Coleher mirror, protector and secret sharer. After her father and Cole move to Brazil and the feds start to investigate her mother's mysterious political activities, Birdie and her mother go underground, posing as the wife and daughter of sympathetic professor David Goldman. Senna's observations about the racial divide in America are often fierce but always complex and humane. If the story has didactic overtones, Senna's shaping of '70s detail and convincing development of her appealing protagonists more than justify its message.
Library Journal
Senna's first novel explores life in the middle of America's racial chasm through the eyes of a biracial girl who must struggle for acceptance from blacks and whites alike. Birdie and Cole are the daughters of a white mother and an African American father whose marriage is disintegrating. When their activist mother must flee from the police, the girls are split between their parents: Cole goes with her father because she looks black, Birdie with her mother because she could pass for white. Living in a small town and forced to keep her family, her past, and her race a secret, Birdie spies upon racism in all its forms, from the overt comments of the town locals to the hypocrisy of the wealthy liberals. Senna combines a powerful coming-of-age tale with a young girl's search for identity and family amid a sea of racial stereotypes and cultural ideas of beauty. -- Ellen Flexman, Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library
School Library Journal
The time is the 1970s, the place is Boston, and the story is of a biracial marriage and the two little girls born of it. Cole, the first child, preferred by both parents, is beautifully black like her father. Birdie, the narrator, is light enough to pass as white. The wife is a "bleeding heart liberal" who has involved herself in civil rights causes against the wishes of her intellectual husband. Finally, the marriage ruptures. A general breakdown ensues when a gun-running political activity precipitates the need for the family to disappear. Cole is taken off to Brazil with her father to begin a new life in a black environment more open to people of color. Birdie is caught up in a series of wrenching deprivals when her mother insists on the need to go underground. There is a change of location, name, appearance, and in Birdie's case, a change of race; she is to pass as white. Money shortages, a complete lack of stability, the loss of a sister almost a twin, a feeling of displacement, the strains of adjustment, no sense of community or relationship, and the growing suspicion that her mother is psychotic make for disturbing adolescent years. Throughout, Birdie keeps alive her need to connect with her father and sister, and faces the knowledge that the liability of her sister's blackness to her mother and her own unwelcome whiteness to her father has brought the family to this sorry situation. It is her courage, her optimism, and her inherent loyalty that brings about a satisfying reunion for the sisters.-Frances Reiher, Fairfax County Public Library, Virginia
The New York Times
Haunting and deeply intelligent.
The Washington Post
Exquisite....Attention must be paid....The final chapters of the book are as taut and fast-paced as a thriller.
Glamour
Extraordinary....A cross between Mona Simpson's Anywhere But Here and James McBride's The Color of Water; this story of a young girl's struggle -- to find her family, her roots, her identity -- transcends race even while examining it. A compelling look at being black and being white.
Katherine Sojourner
A tender and moving novel about two sisters, daughters of a Black father and a white mother, who are separated by their parents' failed marriage. Birdie, who appears to be white, is the narrator of this story about about being whisked away into a new life, only to reach desperately back into time to find her sister and fully embrace her heritage. The novel raises marevelous questions about identity.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781573227162
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
02/28/1999
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
432
Sales rank:
207,127
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.86(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

Thomas Keneally
A superb new writer...A fresh and robust American voice.
From the Publisher
"Lucid and magnificent."—James McBride, author of The Color of Water"The visual conundrums woven through Danzy Senna’s remarkable first novel [will] cling to your memory. There's Birdie, who takes after her mother's white, New England side of the family—light skin, straight hair. There's her big sister, Cole, who takes after her father, a radical black intellectual. It's the early seventies, and black-power politics divide their parents, who divide the sisters; Cole disappears with their father, and Birdie goes underground with their mother...Senna tells this coming-of-age tale with impressive beauty and power."—Newsweek"[An] absorbing debut novel...Senna superbly illustrates the emotional toll that politics and race take on one especially gutsy young girl's development as she makes her way through the parallel limbos between black and white and between girl and young woman...Senna gives new meaning to the twin universal desires for a lost childhood and a new adult self by recounting Birdie's struggle to become someone when she can look and act like anyone."—The New York Times Book Review”Extraordinary...A cross between Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here and James McBride’s The Color of Water, this story of a young girl’s struggle—to find her family, her roots, her identity—transcends race even while examining it. A compelling look at being black and being white, Caucasia deserves to be read all over.”—Glamour"Brilliant...a finely nuanced story that explores the matter of race through the eyes and heart of another white black girl."—Ms.”Senna brings an accomplished voice to this vivid coming-of-age tale, offering images sweet and sorrowful of a child caught on the fault line between races.”—USA Today

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Meet the Author

Danzy Senna's first novel, Caucasia, was the winner of the Book-of-the-Month Club's Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and an American Library Association Alex Award. It was a finalist for an International IMPAC Dublin Award, and was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. Her short fiction and essays have been widely anthologized. She is a recipient of the 2002 Whiting Writers' Award and currently holds the Jenks Chair of Contemporary American/Letters at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

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Caucasia 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 29 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an interesting look into the world of a bi-racial girl and how she tries to fit into each world juxtaposed with what it's like to be a political radical. This was an outstaniding first novel hopefully there will be more to come.
Geisha More than 1 year ago
I am getting a master's in English literature, and having read a wide spectrum of books I can honestly and unequivocably say that this is one of the best books I've ever read. Why? When it comes right down to it---it touched a nerve that evoke tears, laughter, wonder, yearning, relief. Thank you Danzy Senna.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Really deep and intellectually stimulating book. Not as heavy and tough to read as I thought it would be-- it definitely captured my attention. It brings up interesting issues about race and identity and mindsets that existed years back, although I don't know how accurate they are.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a strikingly, beautifully written novel.I loved the way birdie and cole still stayed in contact with each other, or at least tried to.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've read this book for a course on race and ideology and I must say, it is one of the best books I've ever read!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I will definetly recommend this book to every one i know..It was beautifally written and keeps you wanting more!..
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
From the minute I started this book, I found a hundred things to relate to while I watched Birdie Lee grow up. The issues with your hairstyle not "matching" your face, being forced to choose between one ethnicity and another, the eternal separation between siblings with different skin tones...the list goes on and on. I have been searching for years for Birdie's story without even realizing it, and I feel as though Danzy Senna has done a marvelous job of creating a setting where all the struggles of a young mixed girl can be witnessed at once. Brilliantly written and an excellent example of biracial-friendly literature!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I have to admit the title of this book really turned me off. I thought it would be more intricate than I could handle. Boy was I wrong! I could not put this book down and enjoyed the author's writing style. The character's came to life and stayed with me even after I closed the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Birdie's family is a microcosm of our nation we separate to find our ourselves and nuture our pride, but we only become truly mature and sane when we acknowledge our shared history and connection to each other.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A wonderful summer read!! This book kept my attention...and, I would recommend this book!!!! Also the book made me think!!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a biracial female who happens to be very fair and who has been mistaken for being caucasian, I can relate to the deeply disturbing and heart wrenching experiences in this book. Many biracial people are forced to choose between being Black or white in America. Depending on your skin color, hair texture, etc., you are either not white enough or not Black enough, as some are not even acknowledged by their family. This book was hard to put down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this was a great book and I would recommend it to anyone. I also think having a narrerator of mixed races was a crucial and good part of the book because it brought different views on racial discrimination- from someone who could see it from both ends of the spectrum.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am 13, and I love to read but this is one of the best books I have ever read! It was very obvious that the author was biracial( I apoligize if that was the wrong word to use) she made you feel like you could very easily realte even if it had no connection to our personal life WARNING! Mature Content and Language! Soory for the Spelling mistakes
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought it was an awesome book! A real page turner! :)~
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was one of the best books that I have read in a while. Danzy Senna writing is magical and beautiful as she describes Birdie Lee and her life as a biracial child and matures into young adulthood. This novel is a eye-opener for those who just do not know, but want to know.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Outstanding and highly recommended. This story pulls you in from the beginning as the story unfolds when sisters Birdie and Cole are separated, all the way to the reuniting of the two sisters at the end. I felt empty and incomplete until I finished the book. This is a book you just can't put down and forget about it. I would love to see Caucasia the movie.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was a wonderful blend of real life and life which most people haven't yet experienced. She takes us into a different world, and explains life with so many details that it is overwhelming. The story itself is great, a new way to put growing up with a borderline-insane mother, missing a peice of you're life for many years upon reuninting.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I did not know if the author was multi-racial, but as I read the book, and being from a multi-racial family, I knew that she must be bi-racial in order to understand and describe in such detail and depth many of the things discussed. I would recommend the book to people of all races and ages as a valuable learning tool and a fun read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
a woderfull book for all ages im 13 years old and my teacher gave me this book. i truly think that birdie lee is a great charactor for ex:every person she meets is either a slut a whore or is crazy. but she still stays strong!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book blew me away! I am a biracial teen girl(black/white) and can identify very strongly with the feelings the main character in this book has! At times, I felt like I was reading the pages of my own diary. I couldn't tear myself away from this incredible story. This book is a must have for anyone who has struggled to find their identity. This is my new favorite book! Ms. Senna, if you're out there...thank you...thank you!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ms. Senna has taken on themes such as mother-daughter,love/hate relationship and the meaning of color in America and spun them into something altogether her own. This beautifully written debut novel is deserving of a wide readership. This is a moving, involving story written with warmth and grace. Ms. Senna has given us book to treasure.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Dansy Senna provides us with an insite of what the future will be! Biracialism is more and more common and will be what our future will hold. This book explores the feeings of a biracial child and gives an idea of what the feelings, problems and complexitities of biracialism are. It was great and very good reading.