It’s Danzy Senna week here at James Reads Books. I’ve been migrating my old reviews from Ready When You Are, C.B. for about a year now. After posting one about Danzy Senna’s Symptomatic yesterday, I thought why not do the rest today. I’ve read only one other novel by her, but I remember loving it as much as I did Symptomatic. So here is my review of Caucasia.
I want to say that Danzy Senna writes about the margins of race. Does that convey what I’m thinking? Towards the end of her novel, Caucasia, several characters discuss whether or not race really exists. Is it something real, or just something society has constructed?
This question is vitally important to Birdie Lee, the narrator of Danzy Senna’s novel Caucasia. Birdie’s mother is white, the daughter of Boston Brahmans, born to wealth and privilege. Her father is black, an academic and radical who teaches at Harvard. Birdie looks white like her mother. Her older sister, Cole, looks black like her father.
While Birdie is favored by their rich white grandmother who only refers to Cole as your sister, Cole is favored by their father and by many of their black family and friends. The novel is set during the fading years of the 1960’s and 70’s Black Power movement which both of Birdie’s parents are heavily involved in. They send their daughters to an all black school with a Pan-African curriculum. In spite of her nearly white skin, Birdie is basically raised as a black girl.
When her mother goes into hiding to escape the F.B.I. who want her for her involvement with violent radical groups she takes Birdie along. Her father keeps Cole. Years go by and Birdie never hears from either. Meanwhile, her mother gives her a new identity, as a Jewish girl named Jesse. The two settle down in rural New Hampshire where Birdie finds a kind of normalcy attending the local public schools and making friends with the white girls she meets there.
Because they think she is white, the people she meets, even her close friends, feel free to openly be their racist selves. Since she believes her mother will be in danger if anyone ever finds out who she really is, Birdie must keep quite while her classmates make fun of the only black girl in the school and while her mother’s boyfriend makes a casual remark unaware of how racist he is.
But none of this is why I like Caucasia so much. At its heart Caucasia is a book about family. What makes the first half work so well is the wonderful relationship between Birdie and her sister Cole. The two are fully drawn, complex believable characters, but there is a fantastic element to them, something kind of magic. Big sisters protect little ones, little sisters look up to big ones, but these two have a secret language. Their bond goes much deeper than blood, certainly deeper than skin color.
Once Birdie and her mother go underground together, the novel becomes a mother/daughter story. This bond is certainly deep, but it’s not as wonderful. Birdie’s mother is not someone who can be completely trusted. We never know what she did, in fact we soon begin to suspect that the only F.B.I. agents chasing her may be in her head. Birdie loves her, as any child loves her mother, but her love includes a healthy dose of hate. Did her mother only take her along because she couldn’t go into hiding with a black daughter? Was Birdie her second choice? The second half of the novel is a portrait of this mother/daughter pairing. I was reminded of Mona Simpson’s wonderful novel Anywhere but Here. Like that novel, I found reading Caucasia to be like spending time with friends. My favorite kind of character driven novel.
I picked Caucasia for my book club to read. I’ve yet to hear from any of them about what they think. I hope they all liked it, but even if they all turn against me and tell me they hated it, I’ll stand behind my choice. I think it’s a wonderful book.
I’m afraid that in the five years since I first ran this review I have forgotten what my book club thought of it. I think they all liked it and that a few of them admired it as much as I did. I’m excited to say that I’ll be going to the AWP Conference in Lost Angeles this spring and that Mona Simpson is one of the featured speakers there. I’ll have to read her latest book, and I think I should look for more by Danzy Senna, too. Re-reading these two reviews has made me hungry for more.