Even though Tayari Jones' current promotional tour (which included six different appearances in Atlanta!) is focused on her latest book Silver Sparrow, I just finished reading her first novel, Leaving Atlanta, published in 2002.
I have been impressed with Jones essays (see earlier posting), but I will admit I was slow picking up this book. The thought of reading about the 1979 Atlanta child murders, a two year time period where over 20 African-American children were murdered, is not an inviting subject matter, but I now realize that although the deaths and the fears of abduction cast a shadow, the book is as much about the lives and expectations of three particular fifth grade schoolmates: Tasha Baxter, Rodney Green, and Octavia Harrison.
This book does what all good serious fiction does, it takes you into the world of these middle-school kids who, in addition to the tense atmosphere created by the abductions, also struggle with the usual awkwardness of puberty, classroom rivalries, and relationships with mothers and fathers (or absent fathers). Jones presents the different strata of the black working class – where people may be defined by whether they live in the projects or near them, can afford good clothes or not, or have brown skin pr “black, black as night” skin. (One student hangs the nickname “Watusi” on Octavia because she resembles a black African with unruly hair that “stuck out around her face like rays of the sun in a children's drawing.”) The book is divided into three sections following each child, but Jones melds these separate lives with skill. Jones' crafted prose is simple and strong and once a while she poleaxes you with a line that crushes then numbs you. (“You lose your child not like you lose your watch. You lose your child like you lose your sight. Lose your mind,” says one of the mothers.)
I did make it to Jones' reading last week at Eagle Eye Book Shop along about 25 others. She read from Silver Sparrow for about twenty minutes. Silver Sparrow is the story of two half sisters, Dana Lynn Yarboro and Chaurisse Witherspoon, who share the same bigamist father, James Witherspoon but live as two separate, yet unequal families. As Jones read, you could hear the similarities between Silver Sparrow and Leaving Atlanta. Jones has depth of understanding when it comes to family dynamics and is able to reveal the inner most feelings of her characters. During her question and answer, Jones mentioned something she had written about in her blog --- the large number of people that they too, discovered that a father had an entire separate family. (For a complete and thoughtful review about Silver Sparrow, read Chantal James' essay in Paste Magazine.)
There is still time to see Tayari Jones before she leaves Atlanta again to resume her book tour and responsibilities as a professor. She will be at the Decatur Book Festival on Labor Day weekend (details here). I hope they will have copies of Leaving Atlanta on hand and, if so, don't wait as long as I did to pick it up and read it.