“My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.” So begins Dana’s story of how she became the “secret”, bearing the burden of being the offspring of her father’s infidelity. At first her mother, Gwendolyn, has consoled her with the knowledge that Dana and Gwendolyn know about the other wife and daughter (Laverne and Chaurisse) but Laverne and Chaurisse do not know about them. They even take little outings to surveil Laverne and Chaurisse, just to see how they live. But as Dana grows older, she seeks love in other places just to fill the void that her father has created. And as the novel progresses, we also learn that Chaurisse has not gone unscathed by the crime committed by her father. The question is, how long can James maintain his lie? How long until his two worlds collide?
This is a powerful novel, written in the voices of both daughters of a man who believes he can maintain a lie at their expense. It exposes their raw emotions, mostly anger and frustration, in their struggle to form their identities while they are given only a partial picture of who they are. And the author portrays this so naturally it feels organic and authentic.
An interesting character in this story is Dana’s “uncle” Raleigh. Raleigh was raised side by side with James, became like a brother to him, ultimately went into business with him and is almost like a shadow to him during the story. He has some distinguishing features, but he seems to represent something like the conscience of James. We yearn, in a way, for him to marry Gwen just to balance out the situation, but deep down we know that this will not truly fill the void or dull everyone’s pain.
While this story is painful, it is also full of passion and yearning and adolescent thirst for truth, which keeps it hopeful and fresh. Tayari Jones is a true talent.
Roy Othaniel Hamilton is a well-to-do Black man from the Louisiana, who now lives with his wife, Celestial in Atlanta. They’ve come home to visit Roy’s parents, but because of a little friction between Celestial and Roy’s mom, they decide to stay in a little motel for the night. After a benign encounter with a woman down the hall, they are suddenly accosted by police and Roy is eventually convicted of a crime he never committed. As the story unfolds, we are drawn in to feel the painful ripple effect of how one (erroneous!) incarceration can devastate so many lives around the one, innocent, individual.
Tayari Jones is a masterful storyteller. She changes voices with each chapter, a la Jodi Picoult, and this helps the reader to see inside the heart of each main character. In addition, she utilizes letters written by the characters, which help the reader to feel the distance that the characters themselves feel when they are kept at a distance by prison walls. The characters she creates are deeply human – they are all Black, and they are each beautiful and flawed and real in their own ways. It is hard not to sympathize with each and every one of them. And the story itself is extremely powerful, playing out slowly and rising to a dramatic crescendo.
According to the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated more than 5 times the rate of whites, and although African Americans and Hispanics make up only 32% of the U.S. population, they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015. There is clearly a problem here. And of course this problem is complex; with poverty and educational disparities and opportunities being at least part of this problem. And I don’t profess to be able to solve things merely by reading a book.
But… by reading books such as these, we begin to bring to light what the problem is and how deeply this affects so many people. We begin to bring understanding and compassion to what people experience when this happens and it becomes more than just a statistic. And hopefully it will help us to stand up for our fellow man and woman and to see it as a problem that affects us all and not just “the other.”
Reading books such as these – is a start.
This is a MUST READ, for sure.