A Discussion of Silver Sparrow

Written by Stella Pool, Monticello Avenue Coordinator

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Like many book clubs in the JMRL area, my book group often reads the title for the NEA Big Read. We’ve been together as a group for 15 years and have a diverse reading list of both fiction and non-fiction. We routinely collect a quarter from each member at our monthly meetings and over the years, have donated several books to JMRL. We chose to read Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones this month and as a result, had a lively discussion at our meeting.

Instead of a discussion of who did what in the book, our discussion of Silver Sparrow focused on the relationship between fathers and daughters. We talked about our own fathers and how that relationship affected us as girls and the women we eventually became. Characteristics including displaying affection and our general sense of self-worth were influenced by how we were raised. Some of us are stronger women because of our fathers while others succeeded in spite of them.

Our discussion also touched on whether a man should be judged by the good he does in his lifetime or by his “bad” behavior. Could you excuse James Witherspoon’s infidelity because otherwise he was a good son, husband, father, and friend? Our group was divided over the question while some felt we shouldn’t judge him at all.

I recommend Silver Sparrow if you’re looking for a thought-provoking book for your book club. If you aren’t a member of a book group, join in the discussion at several JMRL branches in March. Just check jmrl.org/bigread for the dates/times.

“Some Men Are Attracted To That”

51k4tgddlulBooks on Tap read Silver Sparrow  by Tayari Jones at  Champion Brewery on March 1 as part of the NEA Big Read. Due to a high turnout and a crowded room (both good problems to have), we divided into three groups for discussion so that we could hear each other. Most of us agreed that Jones told a good story with moments of beautiful writing, but that we wouldn’t have read this book if not for the NEA Big Read.

I can’t improve on this synopsis from the NEA Big Read website:

Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta during the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s families—the public one and the secret one. When Witherspoon’s daughters from each family meet, they form a friendship, but only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich and flawed characters, she also reveals the joy, and the destruction, they brought to each other’s lives.

Dana, the “secret” sister, knows far more about the situation than Chaurisse, the “legitimate” sister who has been kept in the dark. Without a shared history, can they truly call themselves sisters? People in the group with experience thought they could have developed a relationship as adults, but that’s not how the novel unspools. The favoritism that each felt the other received from the adults in their lives (and the examples they set) proved insurmountable.  Ironically, it seems Dana, whose fate was determined by Chaurisse’s casts-offs, was made stronger by her father’s cruel insistence on independence and the web of her relationships instead of reliance on a nuclear family. Interestingly, many of us thought the portions of the book that Dana narrated were more compelling than those in Chaurisse’s voice.

Their shared father James impregnated Laverne, his first wife, when she was 14 and he was approximately 19. He and his foster brother Raleigh were left to raise themselves. Laverne moves in and the trio reach adulthood as a tight unit. James decides to become a chauffeur, taking money from both of them, thus ending Raleigh’s dreams of becoming a photographer and Laverne’s formal education. This selfishness crops up again and again (both mothers and daughters wait on him hand and foot), although it could be defended as a reflection of the seriousness with which James takes his responsibility to all the members of his families. It also protects James’ self-image.

James, Raleigh and Laverne are all abandoned by parents. James, Laverne and Chaurisse are the first nuclear family in generations. Their jump to middle-class Atlanta, with access to education and security, is something to be defended fiercely, regardless of James and Laverne’s feelings about each other personally (frankly, James is not a physically attractive specimen).  However, no one can escape him, and perhaps the male influence on these largely matrilineal families. Gwen and Raleigh’s abandonments stand out. Raleigh looks so white that he scares black people – including his own mother. Gwen is disowned by her father after leaving her first husband, proving that she can  leave a relationship.

The secret cracks when Gwen and Dana visit Laverne’s beauty shop. We discussed why they would have done this and if Dana ever made a conscious decision to befriend Chaurisse. Did they want to change the unfair dynamic and thought this was they way they could do it with the power available to them?

Jones portrays her hometown of Atlanta, the City Too Busy to Hate,  almost entirely peopled by African Americans. James and Laverne’s customers, the girls friends, Gwen’s neighbors depict the diversity of experience that is often ignored in outsiders’ depictions. The Civil Rights movement is obliquely referenced, which seems fitting for a novel that focuses so tightly on one extended family’s experience over a short amount of time.

More Information:
Learn more about the NEA Big Read and JMRL’s programs
About the author
Other works
Secret children in the news: Strom Thurmond, Charles Kuralt, John Edwards

Books on Tap Information:

We will be choosing titles for the summer at the April 6 meeting. Add suggestions you have to this list.

Previous titles

Apps for Mental Health

One of the major themes of our Big Read selection, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, is mental health – mental illness and addiction included. In keeping with programming addressing these topics this month, we thought some apps to keep you mentally on track might be helpful. Apps listed below are available for free from Android and Apple app stores.

breatheBreathe2Relax – This app works to relieve stress, manage anxiety, stabilize mood, and control anger with deep breathing exercises. While this type of breathing, called “diaphragmatic breathing”, is generally included in meditation and yoga practices, the exercises in this app are solely breathing focused.

cassavaCassava – This is an addiction recovery assistance app. It helps you locate self-help support and 12-step meetings near you, save meeting locations you have attended and enjoyed, journal, assess your daily moods and activities, and track your progress.

mindshiftMindShift – This app helps you tackle anxiety in any form, from performance or social anxiety to worry and panic. It acts as a portable coach to help you face and work through anxiety rather than avoid it. It has assessments to see how you’re feeling or what type of situation you’re in and provides thinking, relaxation, and action tools so you can move forward.

pacificaPacifica – For anyone struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mood related issues. This app allows you to track your moods over time and connect them to activities or possible triggers like sleep, exercise, time outside, or alcohol intake. It also has helpful activities built into the app that focus on relaxation, goal setting, and positive thinking.

Apps are not intended to be substitutions for appropriate medical treatment of mental health conditions. If you need immediate help, or would like more information on finding treatment please head to MentalHealth.gov.