Silver Sparrow
reviewed by
Anne Stinson

 

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 352 pp. $19.95.
Flat out, the first sentence in this novel reveals the “secret” of what the reader can expect.
“My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.” That’s Dana Yarboro speaking in Part I of this book set in a middle class black neighborhood in Atlanta in the mid-1980s. Dana minces no words. She’s aware there’s another wife who married Mr. Witherspoon without the nicety of divorcing Number One, which makes things sticky. As Jones writes, “With wives, it only matters who gets there first. With daughters, the situation is a bit more complicated.”
Dana knows she has a half-sister just four months younger than she is, but the other girl hasn’t a clue of their connected relationship. Dana’s mother is Wife Number Two.
When the story begins, both girls are in their early teens and go to the same school. To be fair, Dad is not a bad man. He simply felt he should make an honest woman of Dana’s mother when he found out she was pregnant. He visits Mrs. Gwen Yarboro (she kept her maiden name to prevent scandal) and Dana one night a week and loves them as much as his “official” family.
Dana’s curiosity leads her to befriend her sibling to try to understand what life is like to have a father home for dinner most nights, to watch television with him when he comes home from work and is there at breakfast. She hungers for a glimpse of his other life but skirts the risk of spilling the secret.
Part II of the book is Chaurisse Witherspoon’s turn to speak. Her mama, Laverne, married James when she was 14 and pregnant. Their first child, a boy, was stillborn. The doctor predicted that she could not have any more children, but three years later Laverne gave birth to Chaurisse, who was adored by both parents. Laverne called Chaurisse her “miracle baby.” James had also married Gwen to give her a ring, but Laverne felt that “men will be men.” She certainly didn’t tell her beauty shop clients that her James had strayed, nor did she tell Chaurisse.
There’s no happy ending to this story, but the reader will feel close to all the people in it. As Ms. Jones says, “I hope readers will come away from this book with a sort of tolerance for people who find themselves in complicated and messy situations.”
The book “adds up to a very rich portrait of a family, and how these people came together and managed to bring joy – or destruction– to one another’s lives” is the publisher’s summation.
Agreed. I read it twice to savor the skill of this well-crafted story.

For a relaxing vacation without budging from the recliner, sign up for a trip to Mexico.
Mexico City: Out and Around by Karen and Kenneth Basile. Schiffer Publishing Ltd. 192 pp. Available on Amazon.com.
Former St. Michaels residents, now living in Nanticoke, MD, Karen and Ken Basile have showcased their skills in a fabulously beautiful book of photographs of our South of the Border neighbors with “postcards” from their 25 years of visiting and working in Mexico City.
Exploding color on every page illustrates the vitality and warmth of this city of 20 million people. A short text introduces each of a dozen chapters of specific urban areas – parks, historic districts, colonial neighborhoods, museums, markets, gardens, architecture, fiestas, festivals and endless religious celebrations in the center of a country that’s 90 percent Catholic.
It’s an ambitious project that celebrates the gamut from pre-Columbian to modern cultures. Ken Basile has compiled a treasure trove of striking visual pleasure, a testament to his forty-plus years of professional photography. His wife, Karen, a retired English teacher, has focused her ongoing fascination with Latin American studies and supplied the informative text and photo captions.
A welcome bonus is inclusion in many of the captions of directions for finding the sites by using public transportation. Moving around the city appears to be easy, convenient and inexpensive, the Basiles advise. Driving one’s own car is not recommended, they note.
The Metro (subway) is convenient, cheap and includes a fleet of Metro buses for sightseeing above ground. Metro maps are available at every stop, and neighborhood maps can be found at kiosks.
Mexican people are friendly and funloving; the city is sophisticated on top of significant religious blending, a combination of indigenous and Catholic beliefs and customs. With the Spanish conquest, missionaries allowed the Aztec native people to change the names of their gods to Christian saints’ names and to continue to wear masks for their rituals, making it easier to convert them to the new faith.
“The Mexican version of reality is dreamlike,” the authors write. An example is their celebration of the Days of the Dead, October 31 to November 2. Families display photos of dead relatives and prepare the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks to welcome them back for a visit.
Nobody objects to processions that feature animal figures from pre-Christian festivals. It’s not unusual to see people walking on the street in costume on ordinary days - one striking photo in the introduction to the book features a woman striding down a street with bouffant angel wings on the back of her shirt and slacks. In another photo, a man poses in the traffic-stopping costume of a realistic human-sized cockroach.
“If the visitor knows even a smattering of Spanish, use it,” Karen advises. “They’re delighted to hear tourists speak to them in their own tongue, no matter how we mangle it. They’re flattered that we make the effort.”
With such a warm reception, and beguiled by the photos in this book, this reader is tempted to book a ticket. Vamonos!

Your book critic’s schedule forbids chores like ironing until at least October, leaving more time to loll with book in hand. Here’s one I thoroughly enjoyed. Not new (published in 2003), it’s one I also read twice.
Slave Graves, a novel by Thomas Hollyday. Happy Bird Corporation Publishers. 281 pp.
This book also opens with a traffic stopper sentence ... “This Goddamned place!”
The speaker is a young archaeologist, summoned to make an emergency assessment of the partially exposed remnant of an old shipwreck on the Nanticoke River. If it has historic value, all work on a huge construction project will be shut down for a time, costing umpteen millions of dollars to an impatient real estate tycoon.
If the wreck is a run-of-the-mill old wheat hauler, of which there are many abandoned schooners made obsolete by railroads, it can be covered by concrete and be part of a bridge to connect an island slated to be covered with mini-mansions.
Thus begins this tale of good and evil, of African-American legends, of corporate money and arrogance, toadies in the small town adjacent to the island and an annoying old woman who opposes the plan because it will destroy the trees that provide an annual stopover for migrating butterflies. Throw in the boss’s henchman “Spyder,” a black preacher and the (possibly) Mayan marsh-dweller and his swimming cat. On the sidelines there’s a monument to slaves (built by redneck whites), a movie star and innumerable skeletons. Oh, and a former student of the cursing man approaching the scene of the action.
His name is Frank Light, and he’s the chairman of a university archaeology department. His irritation is fueled by multiple problems – his editor is hounding him to finish the overdue final draft of a textbook in his field, his girlfriend is nagging him to be more serious about academic politics and the heat and humidity are incredible.
He just wants to get his look at the wreck over as quickly as possible. So does the university president. The real estate tycoon is on the board of the school’s directors and is a source of big bucks for its endowment fund. Frank’s boss makes it clear that Frank must do the job immediately and verify that the relic is historically worthless.
And so the games begin. The partially buried wreck rests in a morass of stinking muck. Maggie, the lone state archaeologist assigned to the task, has prepared the site with an educated guess on the size and construction of the old boat, and the two of them are ordered to take no more than two days to issue a report clearing the way to resume work. A huge barge carrying a crane floats at the side of the old bridge that will be replaced. The bulldozer that sliced into the wreck is poised to level the approach to a new bridge and pour concrete ASAP.
The black preacher volunteers to help dig silt out of the hull at the site. He is opposed to the development of the project because generations of his people are sure that it’s on an old graveyard for slaves. Frank is dubious about the graveyard legend, because, he asks, who would locate a burial ground at the edge of a marsh? Still, he’s grateful for the old man’s help. The little town was fervently Confederate during the Civil War, and its inhabitants are still firmly racist, the preacher says.
Moreover, the tycoon is the scion of a family that has owned the local plantation, including the island, since the 1600s. As the wealthiest landowners, the descendants have always run things with their hand-picked mayor, police department and favored toadies.
The author tutors the reader with the basics of archaeology practice without slowing the story action. Indeed, it rolls along ominously with puzzling developments, mounting danger to Frank and Maggie, ending in a roaring climax. Butterflies are rescued and “Adam and Eve,” the black population’s code words for the old graveyard legend, are vindicated with wrenching reality.
As vengeance goes, the final outcome is a doozey. The tycoon is hoist by his own petard. (The critic has been waiting for almost 40 years to use that phrase in print.)
Hollyday’s “Slave Graves” reads as film-worthy as a taut screenplay. It would make a terrific movie.

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.