Monday, February 16, 2015

Caucasia by Danzy Senna

An African-American girl is required to pass as white, but at what cost?

Birdie Lee is the younger daughter of a black man and a white woman.  Both her parents are involved in radical politics. When a gun running scheme goes awry, her parents must split and go on the lam, her father and his girlfriend taking the darker older sister, and her mother stuck with the lighter skinned Birdie. Birdie is forced to pass as white as the pair travel under assumed names in New England. Can Birdie find her way back to who she is? She grieves the loss of her father and sister. She grieves the loss of her black identity.

This was an absorbing novel about the high psychic cost of passing as white, especially when you yourself have no particular wish to do so. The structure of the novel, however, was baggy, with creaky insertions of plot, and would have benefitted from some radical pruning. However, Birdie’s world was compelling, especially the descriptions of happier times with her older sister, their made up language. The parents are immature and have failed Birdie. Both prefer her older sister Cole.
When mother and daughter arrive in New Hampshire, Birdie must navigate adolescence as well as a false identity. I enjoyed watching her interact with the whites and the blacks at the school. The WASP grandmother is especially vivid.

The nominal plot was that the FBI was after the mother, but the consequences of that were unclear. Sometimes seemed that the mother was just plain crazy. Because the stakes were so high and the effect on the girls’ lives was so drastic – it was unsatisfying that this wasn’t clarified. Did they even need to go on the run at all?

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