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With the opening line of Silver Sparrow, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” author Tayari Jones unveils a breathtaking story about a man’s deception, a family’s complicity, and the two teenage girls caught in the middle.
Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s two families—the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are ...
With the opening line of Silver Sparrow, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” author Tayari Jones unveils a breathtaking story about a man’s deception, a family’s complicity, and the two teenage girls caught in the middle.
Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s two families—the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode. This is the third stunning novel from an author deemed “one of the most important writers of her generation” (the Atlanta Journal Constitution).
In her third novel set in Atlanta, Jones (The Untelling, 2005, etc.) writes about two African-American half sisters, only one of whom knows that the other exists until their father's double life starts to unravel.
When James Witherspoon, the owner of a successful limousine service, and Gwendolyn Yarboro have their marriage ceremony in 1969 four months after the birth of their baby Dana, Gwen knows that James already has a wife and an even younger baby. While James, who visits regularly if never often enough, and Gwen, a practical nurse, make sure Dana has every middle-class advantage, Dana grows up aware that her parents' "marriage" is a secret and that she cannot openly claim her father; James' devoted stepbrother Raleigh is listed on her birth certificate. Gwen and Dana habitually spy on James' legitimate wife Laverne and daughter Chaurisse, who live in blissful ignorance of James's bigamy. By adolescence, Dana, who attends a prestigious magnate high school and wants to attend Mount Holyoke, increasingly resents the plainer, less gifted Chaurisse, whose needs always seem to come first for James. After meeting Chaurisse by accident at a science fair, Dana finds ways for their paths to intersect. When she finally "befriends" Chaurisse, Chaurisse is thrilled that a popular girl likes her enough to visit her at home. Visits happen during hours Dana knows James will not be there. Dana's adolescent plans, for acceptance as much as revenge, inevitably go awry, but this is less a tragedy than a case of survival and making do. While Dana is at the novel's center, Jones gives both girls' points of view, allowing readers to empathize with each of James's families. Chaurisse may not know about Dana, but she is far from blissful in her ignorance, and her mother Laverne has endured more than her fair share of suffering. James is harder to fathom but also hard to hate.
Jones beautifully evokes Atlanta in the 1980s while creating gritty, imperfect characters whose pain lingers in the reader's heart.
My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist. He was already married ten years when he first clamped eyes on my mother. In 1968, she was working at the gift- wrap counter at Davison's downtown when my father asked her to wrap the carving knife he had bought his wife for their wedding anniversary. Mother said she knew that something wasn't right between a man and a woman when the gift was a blade. I said that maybe it means there was a kind of trust between them. I love my mother, but we tend to see things a little bit differently. The point is that James's marriage was never hidden from us. James is what I call him. His other daughter, Chaurisse, the one who grew up in the house with him, she calls him Daddy, even now.
When most people think of bigamy, if they think of it at all, they imagine some primitive practice taking place on the pages of National Geographic. In Atlanta, we remember one sect of the back-to-Africa movement that used to run bakeries in the West End. Some people said it was a cult, others called it a cultural movement. Whatever it was, it involved four wives for each husband. The bakeries have since closed down, but sometimes we still see the women, resplendent in white, trailing six humble paces behind their mutual husband. Even in Baptist churches, ushers keep smelling salts on the ready for the new widow confronted at the wake by the other grieving widow and her stair-step kids. Undertakers and judges know that it happens all the time, and not just between religious fanatics, traveling salesmen, handsome sociopaths, and desperate women.
It's a shame that there isn't a true name for a woman like my mother, Gwendolyn. My father, James, is a bigamist. That is what he is. Laverne is his wife. She found him first and my mother has always respected the other woman's squatter's rights. But was my mother his wife, too? She has legal documents and even a single Polaroid proving that she stood with James Alexander Witherspoon Junior in front of a judge just over the state line in Alabama. However, to call her only his "wife" doesn't really explain the full complexity of her position.
There are other terms, I know, and when she is tipsy, angry, or sad, Mother uses them to describe herself: concubine, whore, mistress, consort. There are just so many, and none are fair. And there are nasty words, too, for a person like me, the child of a person like her, but these words were not allowed in the air of our home. "You are his daughter. End of story." If this was ever true it was in the first four months of my life, before Chaurisse, his legitimate daughter, was born. My mother would curse at hearing me use that word, legitimate, but if she could hear the other word that formed in my head, she would close herself in her bedroom and cry. In my mind, Chaurisse is his real daughter. With wives, it only matters who gets there first. With daughters, the situation is a bit more complicated.
It matters what you called things. Surveil was my mother's word. If he knew, James would probably say spy, but that is too sinister. We didn't do damage to anyone but ourselves as we trailed Chaurisse and Laverne while they wound their way through their easy lives. I had always imagined that we would eventually be asked to explain ourselves, to press words forward in our own defense. On that day, my mother would be called upon to do the talking. She is gifted with language and is able to layer difficult details in such a way that the result is smooth as water. She is a magician who can make the whole world feel like a dizzy illusion. The truth is a coin she pulls from behind your ear.
Maybe mine was not a blissful girlhood. But is anyone's? Even people whose parents are happily married to each other and no one else, even these people have their share of unhappiness. They spend plenty of time nursing old slights, rehashing squabbles. So you see, I have something in common with the whole world.
Mother didn't ruin my childhood or anyone's marriage. She is a good person. She prepared me. Life, you see, is all about knowing things. That is why my mother and I shouldn't be pitied. Yes, we have suffered, but we never doubted that we enjoyed at least one peculiar advantage when it came to what really mattered: I knew about Chaurisse; she didn't know about me. My mother knew about Laverne, but Laverne was under the impression that hers was an ordinary life. We never lost track of that basic and fundamental fact.
When did I first discover that although I was an only child, my father was not my father and mine alone? I really can't say. It's something that I've known for as long as I've known that I had a father. I can only say for sure when I learned that this type of double-duty daddy wasn't ordinary.
I was about five years old, in kindergarten, when the art teacher, Miss Russell, asked us to draw pictures of our families. While all the other children scribbled with their crayons or soft-leaded pencils, I used a blue-ink pen and drew James, Chaurisse, and Laverne. In the background was Raleigh, my father's best friend, the only person we knew from his other life. I drew him with the crayon labeled "Flesh" because he is really light- skinned. This was years and years ago, but I still remember. I hung a necklace around the wife's neck. I gave the girl a big smile, stuffed with square teeth. Near the left margin, I drew my mother and me standing by ourselves. With a marker, I blacked in Mother's long hair and curving lashes. On my own face, I drew only a pair of wide eyes. Above, a friendly sun winked at all six of us.
The art teacher approached me from behind. "Now, who are these people you've drawn so beautifully?"
Charmed, I smiled up at her. "My family. My daddy has two wifes and two girls."
Cocking her head, she said, "I see."
I didn't think much more about it. I was still enjoying the memory of the way she pronounced beautifully. To this day, when I hear anyone say that word, I feel loved. At the end of the month, I brought all of my drawings home in a cardboard folder. James opened up his wallet, which he kept plump with two-dollar bills to reward me for my schoolwork. I saved the portrait, my masterpiece, for last, being as it was so beautifully drawn and everything.
My father picked the page up from the table and held it close to his face like he was looking for a coded message. Mother stood behind me, crossed her arms over my chest, and bent to place a kiss on the top of my head. "It's okay," she said.
"Did you tell your teacher who was in the picture?" James said.
I nodded slowly, the whole time thinking that I probably should lie, although I wasn't quite sure why.
"James," Mother said, "let's not make a molehill into a mountain. She's just a child."
"Gwen," he said, "this is important. Don't look so scared. I'm not going to take her out behind the woodshed." Then he chuckled, but my mother didn't laugh.
"All she did was draw a picture. Kids draw pictures."
"Go on in the kitchen, Gwen," James said. "Let me talk to my daughter."
My mother said, "Why can't I stay in here? She's my daughter, too."
"You are with her all the time. You tell me I don't spend enough time talking to her. So now let me talk."
Mother hesitated and then released me. "She's just a little kid, James. She doesn't even know the ins and outs yet."
"Trust me," James said.
She left the room, but I don't know that she trusted him not to say something that would leave me wounded and broken-winged for life. I could see it in her face. When she was upset she moved her jaw around invisible gum. At night, I could hear her in her room, grinding her teeth in her sleep. The sound was like gravel under car wheels.
"Dana, come here." James was wearing a navy chauffeur's uniform. His hat must have been in the car, but I could see the ridged mark across his forehead where the hatband usually rested. "Come closer," he said.
I hesitated, looking to the space in the doorway where Mother had disappeared.
"Dana," he said, "you're not afraid of me, are you? you're not scared of your own father, are you?"
His voice sounded mournful, but I took it as a dare. "No, sir," I said, taking a bold step forward.
"Don't call me sir, Dana. I'm not your boss. When you say that, it makes me feel like an overseer."
I shrugged. Mother told me that I should always call him sir. With a sudden motion, he reached out for me and lifted me up on his lap. He spoke to me with both of our faces looking outward, so I couldn't see his expression.
"Dana, I can't have you making drawings like the one you made for your art class. I can't have you doing things like that. What goes on in this house between your mother and me is grown people's business. I love you. You are my baby girl, and I love you, and I love your mama. But what we do in this house has to be a secret, okay?"
"I didn't even draw this house."
James sighed and bounced me on his lap a little bit. "What happens in my life, in my world, doesn't have anything to do with you. You can't tell your teacher that your daddy has another wife. You can't tell your teacher that my name is James Witherspoon. Atlanta ain't nothing but a country town, and everyone knows everybody."
"Your other wife and your other girl is a secret?" I asked him.
He put me down from his lap, so we could look each other in the face. "No. You've got it the wrong way around. Dana, you are the one that's a secret."
Then he patted me on the head and tugged one of my braids. With a wink he pulled out his billfold and separated three two-dollar bills from the stack. He handed them over to me and I clamped them in my palm.
"Aren't you going to put them in your pocket?"
And for once, he didn't tell me not to call him that.
James took me by the hand and we walked down the hallway to the kitchen for dinner. I closed my eyes on the short walk because I didn't like the wallpaper in the hallway. It was beige with a burgundy pattern. When it had started peeling at the edges, I was accused of picking at the seams. I denied it over and over again, but Mother reported me to James on his weekly visit. He took off his belt and swatted me around the legs and up on my backside, which seemed to satisfy something in my mother.
In the kitchen my mother placed the bowls and plates on the glass table in silence. She wore her favorite apron that James brought back from New Orleans. On the front was a drawing of a crawfish holding a spatula aloft and a caption: DON'T MAKE ME POISON YOUR FOOD! James took his place at the head of the table and polished the water spots from his fork with his napkin. "I didn't lay a hand on her; I didn't even raise my voice. Did I?"
"No, sir." And this was entirely the truth, but I felt different than I had just a few minutes before when I'd pulled my drawing out of its sleeve. My skin stayed the same while this difference snuck in through a pore and attached itself to whatever brittle part forms my center. You are the secret. He'd said it with a smile, touching the tip of my nose with the pad of his finger.
My mother came around and picked me up under my arms and sat me on the stack of phone books in my chair. She kissed my cheek and fixed a plate with salmon croquettes, a spoon of green beans, and corn.
"Are you okay?"
James ate his meal, spooning honey onto a dinner roll when my mother said there would be no dessert. He drank a big glass of Coke.
"Don't eat too much," my mother said. "You'll have to eat again in a little while."
"I'm always happy to eat your food, Gwen. I'm always happy to sit at your table."
* * *
I don't know how I decided that my missing teeth were the problem, but I devised a plan to slide a folded piece of paper behind my top teeth to camouflage the pink space in the center of my smile. I was inspired by James, actually, who once told me how he put cardboard in his shoes when he was little to make up for the holes in the soles. The paper was soggy and the blue lines ran with my saliva.
Mother caught me in the middle of this process. She walked into my room and lay across my twin bed with its purple checked spread. She liked to do this, just lie across my bed while I played with my toys or colored in my notebooks, watching me like I was a television show. She always smelled good, like flowery perfume, and sometimes like my father's cigarettes.
"What are you doing, Petunia?"
"Don't call me Petunia," I said, partially because I didn't like the name and partially because I wanted to see if I could talk with the paper in my mouth. "Petunia is the name of a pig."
"Petunia is a flower," my mother said. "A pretty one."
"It's Porky Pig's girlfriend."
"That's meant to be a joke, a pretty name for a pig, you see?"
"A joke is supposed to be funny."
"It is funny. You are just in a bad mood. What're you doing with the paper?"
"I'm trying to put my teeth back," I said, while trying to rearrange the sodden wad.
This seemed obvious as I took in my own reflection along with my mother's in the narrow mirror attached to the top of my chest of drawers. Of course James wanted to keep me a secret. Who would love a girl with a gaping pink hole in the middle of her mouth? none of the other children in my kindergarten reading circle looked like I did. Surely my mother could understand this. She spent half an hour each night squinting at her skin before a magnifying mirror, applying swipes of heavy creams from Mary Kay. When I asked her what she was doing, she said, "I am improving my appearance. Wives can afford to let themselves go. Concubines must be vigilant."
Recalling it now, I know that she must have been drinking. Although I can't remember the moment so well, I know that just outside the frame was her glass of Asti Spumante, golden and busy with bubbles.
"I am improving my appearance." I hoped she would smile.
"Your appearance is perfect, Dana. You're five; you have beautiful skin, shiny eyes, and pretty hair."
"But no teeth," I said.
"You're a little girl. You don't need teeth."
"Yes, I do," I said quietly. "Yes, I do."
"Why? To eat corn on the cob? your teeth will grow back. There is lots of corn in your future, I promise."
"I want to be like that other girl," I said finally.
Mother had been lying across my bed, like a goddess on a chaise lounge, but when I said that she snapped up. "What other girl?"
"James's other girl."
"You can say her name," Mother said.
I shook my head. "Can't."
"Yes, you can. Just say it. Her name is Chaurisse."
"Stop it," I said, afraid that just saying my sister's name would unleash some terrible magic the way that saying "Bloody Mary" while staring into a pan of water would turn the liquid red and thick.
Mother rose from the bed and got down on her knees so we were the same height. As she pressed her hands down on my shoulders, traces of cigarette smoke lingered in her tumbly hair. I reached out for it.
"Her name is Chaurisse," my mother said again. "She's a little girl, just like you are."
"Please stop saying it," I begged her. "Stop it before something happens."
My mother hugged me to her chest. "What did your daddy say to you the other day? Tell me what he said."
"Nothing," I whispered.
"Dana, you can't lie to me, okay? I tell you everything and you tell me everything. That's the only way we can pull this off, baby. We have to keep the information moving between us." She shook me a little bit. Not enough to scare me, just enough to get my attention.
"He said I was a secret."
My mother pulled me into a close hug, crisscrossing her arms across my back and letting her hair hang around me like a magic curtain. I will never forget the smell of her hugs.
"That motherfucker," she said. "I love him, but I might have to kill him one day."
Excerpted from SILVER SPARROW by Tayari Jones Copyright © 2011 by Tayari Jones. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted March 17, 2011
With the opening line, "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist," Tayari Jones skillfully pulls the reader into the world of two sisters: Dana and Chaurisse. Told in first person by each of the sisters, Silver Sparrow is absolutely remarkable. I realize that it doesn't come out until May, but, trust me, you're going to want to pre-order it.
As James' outside child, Dana lives in a world where she's limited by a sister with whom she can't communicate. The product of James' "marriage" to her mother, Gwen, Dana can't work at Six Flags, can't attend a summer program, can't do this and can't do this. Why? Simply because there's a chance that in a big town that can be small like Atlanta, there's a chance that she could meet her sister. While Dana is well aware of Chaurisse's existence, Chaurisse is ignorant of Dana's.
Chaurisse is the product of James' marriage to Laverne. She is actually the daughter for whom I feel the most pity. She is not the pretty daughter and nothing about her stands out. Her parents married at extremely young ages and seem to be together more out of familiarity than anything else. While Dana's mother plays an active part in her life, I almost get the impression that Chaurisse is overlooked by both parents. Not only is she overlooked by her parents, she's overlooked by most people outside of their home as well.
Used to being overlooked, Chaurisse has a name for girls that seem to sparkle and shine; silver. Silver girls are naturally beautiful, but don't mind using makeup to enhance their beauty. Not only are they beautiful on the outside, they're beautiful on the inside. And because birds of feather flock together, they associate with other silver girls, not regular nobodies like her. But one day in the drugstore, Chaurisse meets a silver girl who does want to be her friend and their friendship will be life changing.
It was simply gut-wrenching at times to watch Dana be denied simple pleasures. Can you imagine living a life less than what you deserve because your father is a selfish man? As I kept reading, I repeatedly asked of James, "what kind of coward are you that you would ask a child to carry this burden?" Jones leads the reader through this world, allowing them to get so invested in the character that when she acts out, it feels justified. And when she's in pain, it's only natural for the reader to empathize.
What did you like about this book?
Tayari Jones weaves words together like a beautiful tapestry. I honestly had to put the book down the closer I got to the end because I wasn't ready to be done. Often in stories like this, readers feel the need to choose a side, someone has to be right and someone has to be wrong. It's virtually impossible to do that here.
What didn't you like about this book?
I really wanted James to be held more accountable for his actions. I wanted him to be punished and, with the exception of Dana, it seemed that all of the women were willing to forgive him.
What could the author do to improve this book?
Through Dana and Chaurisse, the reader learns the mother's opinions on what's going on and get glimpses into their thoughts. James felt like a character on the fringe, even though his actions were responsible for the drama happening. I would have loved to hear the story from his voice, in addition to the girls.
10 out of 10 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 23, 2011
do not download this. there is a problem with the digital copy and you will get 247 pages of the cover page and will have to go through several emails/phone calls before your money is refunded.
8 out of 12 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 28, 2011
Jones' Silver Sparow failed to disappoint me. Written beautifully she introduces the reader to each character and then graciously invites us to know them intimately. The complexities of each character's personality and their relationships with one another are laid before us carefully and with sensitivity. One can feel the raw emotion from their life experiences and can understand how each became who they are. While there's certainly pain in each character's life, themes of love, commitment, and a desire to do the right thing persist throughout the story. Jones has written about a very complicated situation as if she has experienced each perspective herself. Just excellent.
4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 19, 2011
The story contains a topic that is known no matter color or station in life and is not discussed much today as we gather with our family members for celebrations, burials, etc. I salute Tayari for tackling such an intense topic and giving a voice to all the 'Silver Sparrows' in the world. I guarantee you will encounter many emotions and come away with a new understanding of the age old saying "We did what we thought best and gave what we had at the time." Through all our daily activities what every human being desires is to be heard, seen and loved. What I love most, is as you close the book your spirit will be lifted because you'll be reminded of the powerful song that contains this refrain: I sing because I'm happy, I sing because I'm free, For his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me. I recommend you allow your daughters, nieces and any young girl you know read this story! My selfish wish is that perhaps we get a sequel *fingers crossed*. <This was not edited so pardon any errors.>
2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 22, 2011
This book makes you feel like you are having a private conversation with the children of a bigamist. This book was so well written I almost cant believe its fiction. Its as if the story taken from something the author has seen or heard in her life. You will be totally captured from the first page. I did not expect to love it but I did. You read the novel feeling bad for Dana, one daughter of the bigamist. Then you wonder how many kids are out there torn and broken like this girl. The way the author describes the father, is to believable its scary. I don't want to give the story away and spoil it for anyone, but go buy it. Asap. Great for your library, great for your hs/college aged daughters, great for its take-away lessons, and great for a conversation piece or book club.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 18, 2013
Posted June 12, 2013
Posted March 24, 2013
Dana's mother is the "other" woman, making Dana the other daughter. Dana struggles to live her life as a secret, having to ensure that she never crosses paths with her father's other daughter, Chaurisse. Chaurisse lives her life as any other teenager, unaware of her father's secret life. She feels safe in her family life and knows her parents love her. But Chaurisse has her own struggles. She is unable to stand out and finds little success in school, extra-curricular activities, and she has no true friend. Until finally, she makes a new friend with a girl named Dana.
Silver Sparrow is told in two parts. It starts from Dana's perspective and progresses through Chaurisse's point of view. Everything about this was wonderfully done. There is a powerful tension and moving complexities that felt real. The power of this book is not in the ending but in the journey to the inevitable. The emotions captured by Ms. Jones were perfectly written. I was captivated by the issues I had nevere considered. Ms. Jones does not focus on the actions of the adults but how those actions impacted the girls, shaping their insecurities and choices. Surprisingly this isn't about good guys versus bad or even how a person deals with a tough issue. Ms. Jones expertly tells a story that, though simple, makes the reader feel every emotion and feel as if she were living in the black middle class during the '80s.
Overall, Silver Sparrow tells an intriguing story simply and elegantly without veering to the melodramatic. It is impossible to describe how amazing this book is so you should just go out and get it.
Posted March 18, 2013
Posted March 17, 2013
Posted March 14, 2013
This book really hit home with me. I wonder if I was the girl other girls were watching. My father had an outside family. My mother divorced him when my youngest brother entered hiigh
school. I refuse to have any connection to those other people, I didn't know they existed until my parents
divorced. This story took me on a journey that I need to take.
Posted March 2, 2013
Posted March 2, 2013
Posted February 23, 2013
Lies down next to him and sighs, falling asleep. (Gtg sorry. You, Scar/Dream/Claw/Ice, are my best friend next to Snowmelt. Thank you.)
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Posted February 23, 2013
Posted February 20, 2013
Posted March 29, 2013
Posted February 9, 2013
Posted January 21, 2013
I love the way Jones's characters are developed just enough so you can care about them, but with enough mystery so they seem human. The characters stayed true through and true.
Excellent writing as always.
Posted January 30, 2013