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Posts Tagged ‘Dorothy West’

A couple of weeks ago two books came through my letter box from Virago that I hadn’t been expecting and what a lovely surprise they were. Two works by Dorothy West; a book of essays and short stories and this novel. Dorothy West is probably best known for her first novel The Living is Easy first published in 1948, (a book I have had for some years) – this novel; The Wedding wasn’t published until almost fifty years later. Dorothy West was a friend of Zora Neale Hurston, part of the Harlem resistance of the 1930s, though she apparently didn’t see herself as a political writer. As Diana Evans explains in her excellent introduction to this new edition, West was never involved in the civil rights movement and yet her work is “infused with the insidious and warped permeations of race into everyday lives.”

Dorothy West wrote about the community that she came from – not the stories of the African-American working class, being published by other black writers – hers; the privileged world of Boston’s black middle class.

In August 1953 the Coles family gather for the wedding of their youngest and loveliest daughter; Shelby. The Oval on Martha’s Vineyard is a proud community made up of Boston’s black middle classes. Although the story in the present takes place over one weekend – it also tells the story of five generations of a family, dipping back into the past exploring the lives of the earlier generations, showing how they came to be where they are as the novel opens.

We have the stories of Preacher – who set out to find the land that would be his home – and his son Isaac, who leaves home as a boy to further his education setting out on a path that will trickle down to the next generation. The story of Josephine who is so afraid of being an old maid she marries the cook’s son and breaks her mother’s heart. The stories of all these people and more are a part of the Coles family.

This is a novel of colourism, and the psychological impact of slavery, and how colour and society’s reactions to it, can become confused with people’s view of themselves.

“Because if you don’t know someone all that well, you react to their surface qualities, the superficial stereotypes they throw off like sparks… But once you fight through the sparks and get to the person, you find just that, a person, a big jumble of likes, dislikes, fears, and desires.”

Shelby Coles like most of the Coles family is very light skinned – fair haired and blue eyed – and has chosen to marry a white jazz musician. Her great grandmother is delighted – Gram; now in her nineties, was a white southern belle, her father had been a slave owner. When her daughter married a black man – it had broken her heart. Now she sees Shelby’s marriage as a chance to free her from what she sees as the burden of living within a ‘coloured family’.

“Like most children, Shelby spent her days and hours trying on the most transparent parts of other personalities, gradually growing aware of their insufficiencies. Then slowly, at a snail’s pace, and with a snail’s patience, she would thread her frailties and fears, her courage and strength, her hopes and doubts, into the warp and woof that would cloak her naked innocence in a soul of her own.”

Gram’s grandson, Shelby’s father married a light-skinned woman as he knew he was required to do – but their marriage has never been happy – and for years Clark has had a mistress, just waiting for the right time to go away with her. Shelby’s sister Liz married a darker skinned man, her baby daughter has been rejected by Gram because of her browner skin.  

“The Clark Coleses came closest to being as real as their counterparts. They had money, enough not only to spend but to save. They were college-bred, of good background. They lived graciously. Two respectful maids had served them for years, living proof that they were used to servants. If Clark and Corinne had not slept with each other for years, even their daughters could not have demanded more discretion in their outward behaviour.”

One of the most memorable stories, relates what happened one summer when Shelby was little – she wandered off and got lost. A search was taken up – but it was many hours before the child was found, because everyone thought they knew what kind of child they were searching for and Shelby didn’t look like that. Shelby later asks Gram ‘am I coloured?”

As Shelby prepares to marry – some people question why it is that of all the men that have paid attention to Shelby she has chosen to marry this white man. Everyone seems to think it’s all about colour. Close to the Coles house in the Oval lives Lute McNeil a black man with three young light skinned daughters – each the result of a disastrous marriage with different white women. The poor little girls having witnessed rather too much emotional turmoil, think white mummies cry, and Lute has got an eye on another new mummy; Shelby Coles.

Ultimately this is a shattering novel of great subtlety, cinematic in scope and richly descriptive.

(This was my fourteenth book in my #20booksofsummer – swapped for The Reading Party – which I still intend to read, eventually.)

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