June 09, 2007
"Black Girl /White Girl" by Joyce Carol Oates
I saw this book in the library and checked it out simply because it was by Joyce Carol Oates. I had heard that she was an acclaimed writer who had a unique and insightful way of dealing with interracial issues. I was curious to know more about this 'different' way of hers, having read many an American novel that dealt with the hackneyed theme of racial relations in this country.
The novel has an interesting narrative that takes the reader in and out of different time lines where certain events prompt the narrator to jump from one time line to another. Genna the narrator, the rich 'White girl' of the story, revisits her past when she was a freshman in an all girls liberal arts college established almost a century ago by her family. It was here that she met the other protagonist of the story, the 'Black girl' Minette who is also her roommate. Minette, who is the daughter of a minister, is at Schulyer College on an academic scholarship.This perhaps is the centerfold from where Genna embarks on her road to revelation. As the interaction between the two girls progresses so does Genna's understanding of her eventful past; a past that holds a father, a prominent lawyer who was an extreme liberal during the Vietnam war era, and a mother who is quite the flower child of the hippie cult. The story takes a tragic turn when Minette dies under mysterious circumstances and Genna is forced to drop out of college. This is in fact where the novel starts, with Genna trying to figure out what really happened to Minette Swift and whether she was in any way responsible for her death.
After this point Genna, no longer the pacifist, the listener or the appeaser, faces and recognizes some harsh truths about herself , her family, and about rich white liberal America. Genna's unraveling of the incidents surrounding Minette's death strips the veneer off of some racial issues of the time. What happens thereafter is rather unconvincing and not in keeping with Genna's character as developed thus far. The novel seems to go downhill in the second half, and makes you wonder why Oates would do this to her story. However, Ms. Oates does a splendid job of exposing the liberal hypocrisy of white America during the 70s, and the resultant guilt that sprung forth from it ; one that is alive in parts even today. To put it in Genna, the "White girl's" words, “I was the one to have saved her, yet I did not.”
I would hesitate to recommend this book to anyone who is either not familiar with American History, or anyone who has read at large about the black-white divide in the USA. If you belong to the former category, the interactions between Genna and Minette will seem illogical and repetitive, and you'll wonder why the writer spent so much time and so much detail on this part. On the other hand, if you've read avidly on the race issues in USA, this novel will not enlighten or deeply interest you in any way; unless you are focused on the credentials of the writer, a chaired Professor at Princeton University.