Sassafras, Cypress and Indigo / Ntozake Shange
New York: St Martins Griffin, 2010, c1976.
This was a strange read for me: it felt very distant from my experience, either my real life or my reading life experiences. Its perspective was just so different. Set in the US in the 60's and 70's, with a burgeoning feminist movement underway, and rooted in Black experience, these girls live lives so very far from my own.
But this is a good thing. It stretches the mind when you encounter something that feels so different -- but it does make it hard to talk about the story! The plot can indeed be summarized, but I'm still not certain of my response to it.
It's about the three sisters named in the title, and their mother, Hilda Effania, and follows each of these girls as they move through their lives. It starts focused mostly on Indigo, the youngest, then follows eldest daughter Sassafras as she moves to California and lives with a musician, a rather abusive one, who keeps her from her own artistic dreams. Meanwhile middle child Cypress heads to New York to follow her passion for dance, and discovers other passions while she is making her life there.
Hilda Effania is the central point holding these far flung stories together. Like any family, the children's lives can spread out in very different directions, but they still maintain a connection to their upbringing in South Carolina. I felt that the lives of the girls were a bit unevenly matched, with lots about Indigo at first, and then her later years very quickly sketched. Cypress was the focus for a lot of the middle bit, and I enjoyed her story. Sassafras was a bit disturbing to read about, as her romantic choices limited much of her potential. Shange focuses mainly on one stage in each of the girls' lives, which does make this feel a bit unbalanced at times, but the other option was to write a gigantic saga, so I can understand the choice of limited focus.
Nonetheless, a picture of the strength of sisterhood emerges. Hilda Effania is a wonderful character, and many of her practical, loving letters to her daughters are included in the text. I really enjoyed these letters. Shange also adds poetry, recipes,journal entries, etc. to fill out the narrative. It made for a very interesting read, feeling like I was getting glimpses at these characters from many different angles. The focus of the book was on female experience, in many different aspects, and Shange illuminated a wide variety of lifestyles through the structure of the story.
I guess my final word on this would be that I found it illuminating, and intriguing, and slightly dreamy too, with touches of magic realism. I can't make any critical judgement on it as I don't have enough knowledge to compare it with anything -- but then I don't often talk from a critical perspective here on this blog, preferring to share my reader's experience of a book. If you've read this, please feel free to share your take in the comments, or a link if you've reviewed it too. I'd love to hear from others about this novel.