ALGONQUIN BOOKS | 2012
FICTION : AFRICAN-AMERICAN | COMING-OF-AGE
REVIEW SOURCE: PERSONAL COPY
James Witherspoon is an “accidental” bigamist. He didn’t plan on his mistress becoming pregnant. But she did. (As a matter of fact, he didn’t intend for his wife to become pregnant at age 14 either, but she did.) And now he does his best to provide time and money to both families; just not equally, and the disadvantaged family knows it.
His wife, Laverne, operates a hair salon in their home and the place becomes a daily hub of neighborhood gossip and commentary. But one thing that Laverne, and her daughter, Chaurisse, never discuss with their customers is James’ second family. They are oblivious to his duplicitous life and he wants to keep it that way at all cost.
James supports both families with his successful limousine company assisted by his life-long friend and business partner, Raleigh. “Uncle” Raleigh slips in and out of both families suggesting normalcy but under the circumstances, nothing is normal. The only other person to know of James’ secret life is Willie Mae, Gwen’s best friend and a weekly visitor to Laverne’s beauty salon.
Gwen lives with the hope that James will leave Laverne, but while she waits, she resents his “real family” and makes darn sure that Dana doesn’t feel second best – but of course she does. With Willie Mae’s help, Gwen is able to follow the goings-on in the Witherspoon family to make sure that Dana never is short-shrifted in favor of the “first daughter”.
Over the ensuing years, Gwen becomes more and more bitter about sharing James and tires of hearing about Laverne. She and Dana begin to take devious side trips to spy on the “first family”. Dana wonders what it is like to have her father 24 hours a day. Why would a father have two families at the same time? Which family – which daughter – does he love the most? She feels like a sparrow whose survival relies on sharing crumbs that fall from the nest of the favored.
Dana’s narrates the first part of the book and is the stronger voice. The second half is narrated by Chaurisse. It is an interesting contrast in points of view. This bifurcated life works well for 17 years but the wheels start coming off the bus when Dana and Chaurisse accidentally meet at a science fair. Inspired by Gwen’s jealousy, Dana sets out to revenge her mother by befriending Chaurisse. Slowly over time, the two girls become real friends. Dana is careful to stage their contacts to avoid her father and not to arouse Chaurisse’s suspicions.
James Witherspoon’s life explodes the same night Chaurisse’s car has a flat tire on the way to a party. Chaurisse does what any daughter would do – she calls her father to come help her. The problem? Dana is riding shotgun. The gig is up.
The two worlds collide and the fallout warps each player as they find their place on the new chessboard. In the end, James and Laverne reconcile and plan a recommitment ceremony. Gwen never gets over the loss of James’ affection and remains a sour and bitter woman the rest of her life.
With her mother all but lost to her, Dana is left wondering if she has lost her father as well and confronts him:
Don’t you love me?
It’s not about loving people, he said. You have to go home now, I have made my choice, just like you made your choice when you went bothering Chaurisse. You almost took my whole life away from me.
What did you think was going to happen? Did he think that I could live my entire life tucked away a dirty photograph? I’m your daughter.
Everyone knows that now, James said. That’s what you wanted. You got it.
But don’t give up on either the young girls, they are stronger than you think. Wait until you meet their grandmother, Bunny. And the romp through 1980s Atlanta is a delight. In the end, you aren’t sure who should have been the grown-up in the story – James, Laverne, Raleigh, Gwen . . .
A good read.