Sunday, June 14, 2020

Betsey Brown

Betsey Brown / Ntozake Shange
NY: St Martins, 2010, c1985
192 p.
I came across this book very recently; somehow I'd missed this one altogether when I was looking into Shange's work after first encountering it with Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, some years ago now. This novel also focuses on a young Black woman's experience -- that of Betsey Brown, 13 years old in 1959 St. Louis. 

The story ranges across Betsey's large family, which includes her grandmother and a cousin who live with them, and all the themes of growing up and hitting adolescence -- Betsey has a crush on a baskeball player at school, she finds herself a secret hiding place in a tree to escape from everyone and think, she negotiates friendships and boys. But the story also places these experiences in context -- Betsey and her siblings all face bussing to new schools as school integration takes place. The racism they encounter is shown clearly.

The family itself is complex; Betsey's father is a doctor, but he is also much darker than her mother and grandmother, and her grandmother is continually mentioning it. They are a well off family as things go; one of Betsey's friends has a mother who works as a nanny, and Betsey discovers the realities of class as she shares a story she thinks is funny, about her ability to run off a new nanny her mother hired, and her friend reacts with anger. 

Her parents are both loving and realistic, as they go through some strife. One of the continuous themes is how overwhelmed her mother feels, but also her inability to retain or respect household help. When her mother is gone for a time, the household finds Carrie, a housekeeper who wears a rope for a belt and keeps company with the gardener, but who is also strong and loving and maintains discipline with the rowdy children. Despite Mrs. Brown's dismissal of Carrie when she returns home, Carrie has affected Betsey deeply, and she shares the final pages with Betsey's own mother when Betsey is reflecting on her life. 

The story weaves in and out, it shows shades of everything -- class, race, gender, but is centred in the Black life that Shange is writing from. It has a rhythm that feels like life, a little bit of good and bad, highs and lows, all mixed up together. It's a beautiful, readable book that I whizzed through in one sitting as it caught me both with its characters and style. Shange's style is appealing and has a sense of musical refrain in it somehow, I'm not sure how to describe it. But it's engaging to read and illuminates a point in history that I hadn't really read about before. Recommended. 

1 comment:

  1. Melwyk,

    I loved this part of your description of it:

    "It has a rhythm that feels like life, a little bit of good and bad, highs and lows, all mixed up together."

    I'd like to read this beautiful book. I've lived in St. Louis so the setting appeals to me.


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