BETSEY BROWN is an
ambitious work. Its intention is to weave
the stories of several people of the same
family together around a time and place
crucial in shaping their ideas and
novel unfolds through the growing pains
of Betsey Brown (aged 13 3/4), the eldest
female child in a brood belonging to Jane
and Greer and living in a big old house
in St Louis, USA. The family are black
and they live between (in several senses)
the rundown black section of town and the
affluent white neighbourhoods. They are
on the right side of the tracks but are
the wrong colour. The year is 1959.
one of the USA's few black surgeons. He
is determined to make his young family
aware and proud of their Negro identity.
He rouses them each morning with a conga
drum strapped to his back and quizzes
them on "what is the most standard
form of the blues? Who is President of
Ghana? A Negro's got to know."
bares the brunt of the adult world's
legal solution to racial problems. She is
unhappily bussed to a (previously) white
school. She was upset enough when her
secret hiding place was discovered and
when her father failed to smuggle her in
to an Ike & Tina Turner show. Plus,
she's reeling from the taste of her first
kiss. The answer (inevitably) is to run
away. She ponders her future: "I
could marry the President, or maybe even
disappearance, although brief, brings to
a head the conflicts simmering within the
household and constitutes the book's most
attempting to convey the contrasting
strands of thought within the black
community on the eve of America's great
civil rights era, Betsey Brown is
successful in a literary if not always
sociological manner. The narrative is
nicely understated, a style well suited
to describing the casually accepted
racism (such as the black children only
going swimming once a week, on the day
the pool is cleaned) of the time in St
Louis itself a city poised between
the relatively "enlightened"
North and the KKK extremism of the South.
uneasy moments occur when the characters
slip from being genuine people and become
too overtly representations of type.
feminist Cider With Rosie? Well er ...
ultimately it is Betsey we're left really
caring about. What, I wonder, is to
happen to her?