There’s a difference in the sheer, thumping stupidity practiced by men and women, Tayari Jones’ new novel seems to say, but both forms of stupidity can devastate the lives of their children. The stupidity committed by Dana Yarboro’s father James Witherspoon is made clear from the first sentence. “My father,” Dana tells us, “is a bigamist.” Dana’s mother Gwen’s stupidity began when she married James knowing that he was already married. James married Gwen, even though he knew he was not only married but that Laverne, his real wife, had just given birth to a desperately ill premature baby named Chaurisse.
Fortunately, both girls are raised in loving homes with some access to their father, though their mothers have to struggle. This is especially hard for Gwen, who has no rights when it comes to James. Moreover, James insists that both Gwen and Dana keep away from his “legal” family; Laverne and Chaurisse must be spared the distress that Gwen and Dana’s existence would cause them. That the Yarboro women are continually vexed by the existence of Laverne and Chaurisse (who has no idea that she has a sister) is of no moment to James. Dana, angry and humiliated, decides to do something about a situation she and her mother find excruciating. But she’s a teenaged girl, and her remedy for enforced invisibility is chaotic, adolescent and sad, yet a little funny for all that.
Jones’ writing is unfussy; she’s invested more in her characters and their world than any flowery prose. Her talent as a writer makes you unable to really despise James Witherspoon, a good man who got into trouble early in life and is the type who compulsively makes that trouble worse. Nor can you disdain his sidekick and enabler, Raleigh, who was raised with James and goes along with his scams without complaint or judgment. As Jones herself said, going along with James gives the orphaned Raleigh not one but two families who love him. Laverne is a solid and responsible woman, but Gwen’s non-status in James’ life brings out a side of her that’s childish and vengeful. Despite their situation, Dana and Chaurisse can be refreshingly normal, interested in clothes, boys, parties, which college they’re going to get into, and hair—much of the book focuses on how hair is fetishized in the African American community. The end of Silver Sparrow doesn’t come as a surprise. Such, the ending tells us, are the wages of stupidity, if not sin.