Advancing Sisterhood? Interracial Friendships in Contemporary Southern Fiction

Advancing Sisterhood? Interracial Friendships in Contemporary Southern Fiction

Scura, Dorothy M

Advancing Sisterhood? Interracial Friendships in Contemporary Southern Fiction, by Sharon Monteith. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2000. pp. x, 241. $42.00 cloth.

THE TITLE OF THIS BOOK SHOULD BE Interracial Friendships Between Females in Recent Southern Novels Written by White Women, but one can readily see that no author would give her book such a baggy title. The problem of a title is the product of the nature of the study which is wide-ranging, complex in its argument, meticulous in its use of sources. Sharon Monteith explains that her work “takes off’ from Minrose Gwin’s Black and White Women of the Old South: The Peculiar Sisterhood in American Literature (1985) and Diane Roberts’s The Myth of Aunt Jemima: Representations of Race and Region (1994). Unlike the two earlier critics, Monteith chooses to write about recent novels, but her text seems to be engaged in a conversation with these two earlier texts as though, dare we say, with two older sisters. In fact, Monteith has read and assimilated much material from many fields; Suzanne Jones is quoted on the back cover observing appropriately that “Advancing Sisterhood? provocatively brings together theories from several intersecting fields-Southern studies, women’s studies, cultural studies.” This knowledge from many fields enables Monteith to place her subject, cross-racial friendships, in a broad historical, sociological, psychological, and political context; but all of this information is used in the service of reading many literary texts-primarily Kay Gibbons’s Ellen Foster, Lane von Herzern’s Copper Crown, Ellen Douglas’s Can’t Quit You Baby and Carol Dawson’ s Body of Knowledge.

In the Introduction, which outlines the parameters of her study, Monteith identifies for extended scrutiny these four novels, all published between 1982 and 1990, each one focusing on a cross-racial relationship. She explains that “black and white writers and critics are used in convergence and counterpoint, and the project necessarily draws on the legacy of civil rights preoccupations with racial equality and the ramifications of feminist organizing as well as recent preoccupations with community and communitarianism.” In summary, Monteith is exploring the “drama of black and white friendships between women and what white writers are trying to accomplish by playing out this drama” in their fiction.

The first chapter provides a thorough survey of “Literary and Theoretical Formulations of Friendship.” It would be an appropriate place to begin for any student or scholar thinking about the subject of friendship. All of the relevant studies in criticism of the work of women writers are included as are those on race, feminism, and culture. Leslie Fiedler, in his 1960 work Love and Death in the American Novel, proposed that a central archetypal image “`haunts the American psyche,”‘ the image of two men, one white and one dark who forsake society, bound together by a love “homoerotic and redemptive.” Only Copper Crown of the five novels discussed could be read as containing a “homoerotic exchange,” but for this work Monteith recasts Fiedler’s image and finds that “the redemption of the white woman through her black companion is paramount” in each of the novels she examines closely.

In a chapter entitled “Between Girls: Friendship as a Monologic Formulation,” Ellen Foster is analyzed. At the center of this novel are two girls, both poor, one black and one white. Because the novel is a bildungsroman, the reader knows Starletta, the black girl, only through the words of Ellen. Starletta herself is “unvoiced,” “mute,” “never a speaking subject.” According to Monteith, Ellen’s mind itself is desegregated, but her black companion is subordinated, their friendship not surviving adolescence.

Lane von Herzern’s Copper Crown is discussed in chapter 3, “Envisioning Sisterhood: Eco-Utopian Romance and the Female Pastoral.” This novel is set in rural Texas between 1913 and 1932, a time of much racial and sexual violence. As in Ellen Glasgow’s Barren Ground and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, the novel features “the healing properties of land,” but the central focus is the friendship between Cass, white, and Allie, black. As in Ellen Foster, the first-person narrator is Cass, the white girl, and Allie does not speak in her own voice.

Central in the chapter “Across the Kitchen Table: Establishing the Dynamics of Interracial Friendship” is Ellen Douglas’s Can’t Quit You Baby. In her work Douglas “has consistently pursued the meanings and deflated the myths of Southern race relations .” More than the younger writers discussed in this work, Douglas “engages with the moral and social issues addressed by civil rights struggles and the consequent changes at each level of society.” In the framework of this study, Douglas has advanced the fictional depiction of sisterhood in the friendship of white, middle-class Cornelia and black, working-class Tweet. Tweet speaks first and tells her story in her own voice; Cornelia’s story is told in the third person with the narrator having access to Cornelia’s mind. Thus the reader knows “much more of the racial, gendered, class circumstances” of the black woman’s life than of Starletta’s in Ellen Foster or Allies in Copper Crown. The novel is concerned with Cornelia’s deafness to Tweet’s words and her inability to see Tweet’s reality. Monteith proposes that this “narrative is about the construction and communication of women’s stories, of how they differ, interrelate, and ultimately are plural.”

Carol Dawson’s novel Body of Knowledge is analyzed in the last chapter entitled “The Keepers of the House: A Southern Family Saga.” Victoria Ransom, the last of the Ransom line, embarks on a journey to uncover her past; her guide is Viola, a family servant through four generations of Ransoms, who knows the family’s secrets. Indeed, Viola is the family’s “secret repository of knowledge,” “the family’s safe deposit box.” Book I is Viola’s book, and Book 2 is Victoria’s. First, Viola tells the story; she is the “narrator as eyewitness,” and in Book 2 Victoria is the narrator as interpreter. As Viola tells the story, Victoria literally consumes the material, growing to a body weight of over 500 pounds. Thus, she becomes like Viola “a living family vault.” After Viola dies, Victoria is left alone to put the stories together, “to reconstitute the facts of history.” Monteith points out that Viola is necessary to the plot, and she is “center stage,” “a speaking presence.”

It does violence to this study and to each of the four novels Monteith features to reduce them to a bare-bones outline. It is especially egregious to touch so briefly on Dawson’s great sprawling epic novel that is gothic in nature and contains intertexts with so very much of Southern literature. Monteith, for example, points out similarities in Miss Rosa’s narration of family secrets to Quentin, and Viola’s telling family secrets to Victoria, but there are scores of connections to other works in the novel. Monteith is a superb interpreter of texts, but she is especially impressive in her readings of Douglas’s and Dawson’s novels. (This may simply be my own prejudice because I have read those novels recently, read Ellen Foster years ago, and have not read Lane von Herzen’s Copper Crown.)

Monteith is comprehensive-perhaps encyclopedic-in her knowledge of recent books that contain interracial friendships between women. As she discusses at length four novels, she mentions, explains, or interprets dozens of other novels along the way. I am astonished that so very many books-so very many important books-focus on cross– relational friendships. It is surely one of the most significant subjects of fiction of this time, and Monteith has drawn a critical base line by tracing the developments in narrative strategies and the connections to the Civil Rights and feminist movements. Advancing Sisterhood? deserves to go on a shelf next to Gwin’s book on the peculiar sisterhood and Roberts’ exploration of Aunt Jemima. Also on this shelf are other books about Southern women writers by Anne Goodwyn Jones, Trudier Harris, Linda Tate, Rosemary Magee, Helen Fiddyment Levy, Lucinda MacKethan, Kathryn Seidel, and Louise Westling-all mentioned in Monteith’s study. This study contributes to the impressive body of work published on Southern women writers in the last twenty years.

University of Tennessee DOROTHY M. SCURA

Copyright Mississippi Quarterly Summer 2001

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