Chris Kloet recommends three American authors
In the best teenage fiction, there are not necessarily easy answers to the often awkward, funny, painful problems of growing up, any more than there are in real life: remember the e e cummings quotation? – … (existing’s tricky: but to live’s a gift)…
And nowhere is this more true than in the works of three outstanding American writers for young people, Mildred D Taylor, Rosa Guy and Deborah Hautzig. Despite the many differences in their works, I see them as a complementary trio for a handful of reasons.
First, they all write heart wrenchingly (and that isn’t too strong a way of putting it) about adolescent girls who, through no fault of theirs, are having a hard time either physically, emotionally or spiritually. Each writer says something cogent about the succour of friendship here, but none of the authors’ young heroines for our times survives friendships unscathed or wins growth in understanding of herself cheaply.
As well as writing at the same heightened emotional pitch, these authors all seem to be writing from the inside, as though they, themselves, have trodden the same paths as their protagonists. Perhaps that’s the best compliment one can pay to authors’ creative talents – to suppose that their stories must be, at least in part, autobiographical! Whatever the case, these writers’ works have an emotional truth and a rare veracity which gives them an immediacy which is hard to resist.
I also link the trio Taylor, Guy and Hautzig because the themes of some of their books overlap: racial discrimination and the Black experience; teenagers defining their own sexual orientations. These are innovatory writers who have done much recently to extend the boundaries of the teenage novel, by their uncompromising choice of subjects and treatment: tough, hard-edged and controversial, their books are often strong meat indeed, and at a vast remove from the innocuous writings of the Kamm/Tate/Peyton school or, for that matter, from most other writing for people of this age group.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, these three authors are linked by the same serious intentions at the very core of their books. Intensely moral writers all, they reveal with insight and compassion the eternal dilemmas of conscience and principle which the young must face, as an awareness of Polonius’s advice dawns, – to thine own self be true. And if that all sounds very high-flown, it should be added that it’s all done with grace, wit and a great deal of robust humour!
Mildred D Taylor
The over-riding humour, and the warm descriptions of family unity save Mildred D Taylor’s Newbery Medal-winning novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and its distinguished sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, from being catalogues of unrelieved pain. Set in Mississippi during the 1930s’ Depression, the books follow a couple of years in the troubled lives of the members of the Logan family, as seen through the, at first innocent, then increasingly fearful and disillusioned eyes of young Cassie Logan. The Logans are Black, poor (although not as poor, or as tied to their landlords as their share-cropper neighbours), and the victims of bitter racial discrimination. Initially, Cassie is oblivious to all this, but as she slowly becomes aware of the humiliations and outrages perpetrated on herself and her family (acts which become more mindless and violent as the Depression worsens), so she also learns the galling truth – that she can not fight the injustices without endangering the lives of her family. The Logans come through the turmoil surrounding them, even the lynchings and burnings, because of their almost superhuman reserves of fortitude. endurance and independence of spirit.
The sheer dignity of these characters, who are based on Taylor’s own family, lends weight to her hopes (as expressed in the Foreword to the second book), that the works will teach… ‘children of all colors the tremendous influence that Cassie’s generation… had in bringing about the great Civil Rights Movement of the fifties and sixties’, and that they will also help children to both ‘cherish the precious rights of equality and to ‘better understand and respect themselves and others’. These are surely aims which are pertinent to our teenagers’ perceptions of, and experiences of, our multi-cultural society in Britain. Such eloquent pleas deserve a wide readership: I only hope that the sheer length of these brave, beautiful books (770 pages in total, for the two works), won’t deter all but the most committed readers. It will be a serious loss if the second story doesn’t make it into paperback: what about it, Puffin?
Judging by the four works published here to date, by our second Black writer Rosa Guy, I think that whilst she would probably agree that much was achieved by the Civil Rights Movement, she would be less optimistic than Taylor. According to the Guy canon, if you are Black, female and living in Harlem, the odds of your getting out of the poverty trap and making a success of your life are heavily against you. And as for stamping out racial discrimination, there’s still a very long way to go.
Her first hook, The Friends, established Guy as a sympathetic chronicler of contemporary Black life, Black pride and Black expectations: at the same time it introduced one of teenage fiction’s most poignant heroines – Edith Jackson, whose story Guy continued in a powerful novel of the same title. The Friends concerns the unlikely (and at first unwanted) friendship between Phyllisia, newly arrived in Harlem from the West Indies, and scruffy. irrepressible Edith. Things are bad at home for Phyl – she hates her tyrannical father, and her mother is dying. So the unstinting loyalty which Edith. her protector at high school, thrusts at Phyl blossoms, despite her father’s opposition. Even when she has shabbily betrayed Edith, whose problems are in fact far greater than Phyl’s, the friendship enriches Phyl, helping her to see herself more clearly, to see where her responsibilities lie, and to stand up for herself.
A truly outstanding book, not nearly as sombre as it sounds. which makes the point that real friendship entails responsibilities and obligations. It’s good that it is available in Puffin, although the dowdy cover does it less than justice.
In the next book. Edith Jackson, Guy examines the theme of the teenager acting as surrogate parent, and points out that the young person in this position is unlikely to grasp that one’s responsibilities to oneself may properly outweigh one’s responsibilities to others: hence the introduction of a pet subject of this author’s, the matriarchal figure as mentor of the young. Edith and her sisters are now orphans, who have been shoved in and out of the Institution and a succession of unsuitable foster homes. At seventeen, Edith is blind to her own potential and worth. She has just one ambition – to look after her sisters, because her family unit to which she fiercely clings represents the only stability in her life. Enter Mrs Bates, a self-made Black lawyer who has had the guts and tenacity to rise above the oppression society metes out to the least privileged Black American female. By her interventions, which Edith at first resists, the girl is eventually brought to a realization that she must choose a career, but in the meantime, Edith’s family is lost.
Guy’s portrayal of Edith is compassionate, deeply sympathetic yet touched with grim humour. She exposes more fully than any other writer I know, the grievous hurt felt by young people who are cared for by the State and the degree of resilience necessary in an indifferent world to overcome this emotional damage. A raw, searing work (could cause offence with its language and incidents) which should be required reading for everyone. Why isn’t it available in paperback?
The author continues her exploration of ‘mentor’ in The Disappearance, but breaks new ground here in that the main character is male. Cool, street-wise Imamu, just out of the detention centre, is flattered when smart Ann Aimsley, a pillar of the Brooklyn community, offers him a foster home. Soon Ann regrets her generosity because her young daughter disappears and suspicion falls on Imamu. After being tortured by the police, the boy sets out to find the child and clear his name. The horrifying climax confirms his trust in his despised street wisdom and his autonomy. This fierce, disturbing thriller examines the destructive elements of patronage and questions the often shaky motives behind the philanthropic act. Full of racy language and uncompromisingly adult in tone, this book has plenty to say to the mature teenager about social injustices and Black pride.
Ruby, Guy’s most recently published work here, was actually written in 1976. between The Friends and Edith Jackson, and it completes a loose trilogy about the same characters. Here, the emphasis is on Phyllisia’s elder sister Ruby, and it’s a love story. 18-year-old Ruby has little of Phyl’s resourcefulness. Over-protected by her father since her mother’s death (and she is still especially missed). Ruby is unsure of herself. bored, uninterested in her studies and desperately lonely. When Daphne, Ruby’s cool. spectacular classmate who possesses all the poise and determination which Ruby lacks, offers her friendship. Ruby eagerly accepts. The relationship soon deepens into love, and for a time Ruby is completely happy. But her possessiveness and lack of maturity lead to a break-up: at first desolate, she finally sees that her time spent with Daphne have given her the confidence she hitherto lacked, to challenge her father, and stake her claims to pleasure and freedom.
Although there are a few purple passages, the relationship is quite shrewdly observed. The trouble is that Ruby comes across as rather wet, by comparison with the splendidly liberated Daphne, who is altogether a much more strongly realised character. The book’s major strength is that it does not patronise the reader, by either omitting the physical aspects of the lesbian relationship, or suggesting that there is any cause for shame in it. Not the best Guy, but still very welcome, because we have so few books, here which explore homosexuality sympathetically
There are some similarities between Ruby and the first, extraordinary book by the last author in my trio. Deborah Hautzig. Hey, Dollface was something of a breakthrough when it appeared here in hardback in 1979, because it was the first book which treated the subject of growing up gay positively. Val and Chloe enjoy a marvellous friendship – they spend all their free time together and are typical, lively 15-year-olds. The special bond of trust which they share is capable of being misunderstood by outsiders, and by the girls themselves. Val, the narrator, is especially frightened by the label ‘lesbian’, and the book is mainly concerned with her attempts to sort out her feelings for Chloe. There’s a lot of soul-searching here, and some very funny bits which are not unlike the mood and tone of vintage Zindel. And as much as it is a story about sexual definition, it is even more. a story about growing up and learning to trust one’s feelings. It deserves to be read by every girl, so full marks to Fontana Lions for being brave enough to publish it in paperback. If only there were a book which told the same story from the male viewpoint, in which the treatment were as well-handled as here.
Finally, there isn’t room here to do full justice to Hautzig’s recent book Second Star to the Right. It’s a penetrating study of a 14-year-old girl who is suffering from anorexia nervosa, and shows the very real difficulties in diagnosis and cure which face the victim. The author doesn’t pursue the ‘fat is a feminist issue’ line, but instead focuses her considerable talents on tracing the deeper, psychological causes for the obsession. Her insights about the girl’s feelings for her mother have, for me, a tremendous ring of truth. Watch out for the paperback edition when it comes out in Fontana Lions later this year.
The Books Mentioned
Mildred D Taylor:
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
Gollancz, 1977. 0 575 02384 8, £4.95; Puffin, 0 14 03.1129 7. £1.25
Let the Circle Be Unbroken
Gollancz, 1982, 0 575 03084 4, £6.50
Hamish Hamilton, 1979, 0 241 10151 4, £3.50; Fontana Lions, 0 00 671964 3, £1.00
Second Star to the Right
Julia MacRae Books, 1981, 0 86203 052 8, £4.95; Fontana Lions, 0 00 671979 1, £1.00 (November 1982)
Gollancz, 1974, 0 575 01839 9, £4.95;
Macmillan Education, 1982, 0 333 29514 5, £1.65:
Puffin, 0 14 03.0933 0, 95p
Gollancz, 1979, 0 575 02607 3, £4.95
Gollancz, 1980, 0 575 02804 1, £4.50
Gollancz, 1981, 0 575 03052 6, £5.50