The Big Read: Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

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Various societies, both past and present, have accepted polygamy—a man’s right to marry more than one wife—as legal, including 19th century Mormons in the U.S. and many Muslim countries currently (some with restrictions). But illegal or not, many Western societies have turned a blind eye to men’s habit of maintaining the household of a secret mistress and her children—sometimes involving a second marriage—while also enjoying a respectable home life with a “legitimate” wife. Although it has become increasingly unacceptable in recent years, the practice of having two families is still more common than we think, with “the other grieving widow” often showing up at a man’s funeral. This year’s Big Read selection, Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones, exposes this long-hidden practice and explores its negative consequences.

Set in the suburbs of Atlanta in the 1980s, Silver Sparrow (2011) is narrated in turn by the two high-school-aged daughters of marriages—conducted in different states—to two women by the same man, one open, the other secret. Dana Yarboro, the “secret sister,” opens the book with “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.” Chaurisse Witherspoon, who lives a relatively normal life with two parents and is completely unaware of her father’s second family’s existence, narrates the second half of the book. James, the stuttering owner of a successful limousine service, is portrayed as loving both women and both daughters—but he spends only one night a week with Gwen, Dana’s mother, living primarily with Chaurisse and first wife Laverne. Similar in age, the two girls live in different neighborhoods in Atlanta and attend different schools, but often inhabit the same social circles. Dana, yearning to be part of her father’s “real” family, stalks Chaurisse—which inevitably leads to the two girls’ meeting. Chaurisse is strangely attracted to Dana and pursues a friendship with her, but this is bound to put an end to Chaurisse’s innocence as the two families collide. The narrative is driven by the hope that the sisters will truly connect and come to support each other, but you’ll need to read the book to discover whether they eventually do.

The book highlights the plight of women, both mothers and daughters, caught in the web of secrets resulting from such a man’s selfish desires. While James is portrayed as earnest in his effort to care for both families, he is also remarkably unconcerned with the long-term consequences of his actions. Although both mothers work to support their daughters—Gwen as a nurse and Laverne as a beauty shop owner—Gwen and Dana live a much more reduced life than their counterparts, in an apartment rather than a house; Gwen has to cajole James into every major expense, such as Dana’s impending college education. “People don’t go around thinking how lucky they are that their dad claims them,” Jones points out in “A Conversation with the Author” (Algonquin Books edition). “[Chaurisse] has no idea that the life she enjoys is on someone else’s back.” Jones describes the many calls and emails she has received from other ‘silver sparrows,” i.e. victims of similar situations. “Secret children are much more prevalent than we know.”

The title combines two threads in the book, echoing James’ double life as well as the two-sided nature of the narrative. Chaurisse views Dana as a “silver girl,” one of the beautiful, popular girls with naturally straight hair and a cool boyfriend. The sparrow is a more lowly allusion to the gospel classic ”His Eye is on the Sparrow,” which is mentioned by Chaurisse’s first boyfriend, the preacher’s son Jamal, when he tells her the troubling tale of his alcoholic mother. Jamal expresses doubt that “God is looking in on each and every one of us. He said he had some questions about the whole dynamic with the sparrow.” The sentimental hymn reassures us that since “[God’s] eye is on the sparrow…I know He watches over me.” But the entire plot of this novel raises questions about such a belief. As Jones explains, “… although Chaurisse thinks of Dana as her ‘silver girl,’ in many ways Dana is the tiniest sparrow in the story. She is flawed, of course…but she is also ‘the least of these.’” Thus the title is an ironic reference to Dana, the more neglected daughter, whose beauty cannot replace the love and attention she craves from her largely absent father. Ultimately both girls, and their mothers, suffer from James’ behavior. “There are no real winners or losers in this story,” Jones admits.

Born in Atlanta in 1970, Tayari Jones has received “best book” recognition for her third novel from several sources, including the American Booksellers Association, the NAACP, O Magazine, Slate, and a 2011 interview on NPR’s All Things Considered. She teaches in the MFA program at Rutgers and is active in Girls Write Now, a writing and mentoring organization for girls.

You can hear Jones discuss her book at Northside Library on Friday, March 17, at 6 p.m. as part of the Big Read. The NEA Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts designed to encourage citizens to read and discuss a single book within their community. JMRL receives an annual grant to provide the Big Read throughout central Virginia during March, with related programs at all branch libraries (jmrl.org/bigread.htm).

The Crozet Library will host its Monday Night Book Club discussion of the book on Monday, March 7. (Other library events include Women’s Life Writing Workshop every Tuesday from March 7 through April 4, a Lost and Found Upcycled Book workshop on March 8, a showing of the film Barbershop: the Next Cut on March 20, and a Finding Your Roots Genealogy Workshop on March 27.)

Although it was refreshing to read a novel about African Americans in the South who were business owners and led comfortable, middle-class suburban lives, overall I found this book disappointing. It feels more like a young adult novel, with teenaged protagonists and concerns and lackluster vocabulary and prose style, than an appealing adult, Big Read choice. The characters were not well-developed, and I found the voices of the two narrators indistinguishable, with Chaurisse’s voice only slightly less caustic and more innocent than Dana’s. As the book builds too slowly to the final confrontation between the two wives—one unknowing, the other enabling—it becomes unrealistic and anticlimactic. Gwen is not developed enough for us to understand her motivation in finally coming out of the shadows. The one exception might be the heart-rending story of Chaurisse’s mother, who gets pregnant at 14 and has to drop out of school to become James’ stay-at-home wife (and then loses the baby).

That said, the book is worth reading, as it opens a window on a little-known phenomenon and portrays it from the oft-ignored women’s perspective. “I hope that readers will come away from the book with a sort of tolerance for people who find themselves in complicated and messy situations,” Jones said. In that, she has definitely succeeded.

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