Black Girl/White Girl

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The book that has held my attention this week has been Black Girl/White Girl written by Joyce Carol Oates. Last year I had to read her short story Where are you going, where have you been? which I found both disturbing and enticing as she decorates everyday American life with a sharp and often threatening edge, placing her characters in dangerous situations. Black Girl/White Girl was to be no different. This book is set in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam war in the mid 1970's. Placed in an exceptionally academic and liberal college in North America, Oates carves tension into her literature by gently dropping subtle malice into sentences, placing both of her female characters in  dilemmas beyond their control.

Throughout the book lies the familiar theme of social tensions and expectations, yet Oates shines a new and brighter light on the delicate subject of racial inequalities by forming her first person narrative from the perspective of the privileged protagonist, Generva Meade. However, early assumptions of a wealthy background are instantly dismissed as the confessional lends damaging information to the reader, who soon becomes aware of the darker side the liberal 60's and 70's. In particular Oates not only acknowledges but demonstrates how easily innocence can be snatched from a child exposed to an alternative lifestyle. This of course is a subject close to Oates' heart, who often centers her fiction around the awkward leap from childhood to adulthood, always mourning for the children who are pushed into adulthood before their time.

Minette Swift, the daughter of a Reverend from the deep south, is the roommate of our disturbed protagonist and oh how she begrudges Generva Meade! Swift shuns her enthusiastic roommate not out of a racial prejudice but out of an ignorance - keen to succeed Swift also shuns other students, not only making her extremely unpopular but also adding fuel to the fire, which consequently has disastrous effects on the community of Haven House.

This story is a tragedy, a realistic insight into the complicated grey area that followed the success of the Civil Rights movement. The double edged sword that this novel presents is not just one of racial injustices but is also a reflection of the dangers of assumptions and hysteria, echoing back to the Communist witch-hunts. Oates exposes the fickle nature of juvenile minds and accentuates the real threat this poses to societies throughout the world. I thoroughly recommend this book for anyone who has an interest in teenage psychology and the true danger of gossip.

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