Learning about life through prism of race

Jonathon Scott Fuqua writes about a girl in the 1920s South

May 05, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

The central character in Jonathon Scott Fuqua's new book, Darby (Candlewick, $15.99), emerged from the fertile and tormented land of rural South Carolina.

Like the protagonist in his first book, The Reappearance of Sam Webber, Darby Carmichael learns a lot about who she is through the prism of race.

She's a spunky 9-year-old who lives on a farm in Marlboro County, circa 1926. Her best friend, Evette, the precocious daughter of a black tenant farmer, understands the social limits of their relationship better than Darby.

After some soul searching of her own, Darby writes a plea for racial equality for the local newspaper, and her little town erupts.

"I like Darby a lot," says Fuqua, who is sitting in the second floor study of his rowhouse on Lake Montebello. "She's a great voice to write in. She's intelligent and a thinker."

Darby follows on the heels of Sam Webber, published by a local press in 1999. Widespread praise and several prestigious awards brought the book to the attention of Candlewick Press, which re-released it. Fuqua now has a long-term contract with Candlewick. Sam Webber "did things I never thought it would do," he says.

Fuqua's next young adult novel, The Pygmy King, is set in Havre de Grace, "an odd little crossroads," he says. An adult novel, The Movement of Oxen, which takes place on Bolton Hill, is making the publishing-house rounds. And Fuqua has also completed a graphic novel, In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe, with local artists Steven Parke and Stephen John Phillips.

But now, it is Darby's moment. In mid-April, Fuqua had a star turn at a book festival sponsored by the governor of South Carolina, where he read from the young adult novel. Several days later, he shared the lectern with Joyce Carol Oates at a large book conference in New Jersey.

Reviews for Darby, released earlier this month, are enthusiastic, particularly in regard to Fuqua's sensitivity to oral tradition: "It's Darby's voice that makes this story memorable, both the Southern colloquial cadence and expressions of innocent observations," according to a Kirkus review.

Darby appeared to Fuqua as he was driving back to Marlboro County, where he and his friend Catherine D. Rogers had been conducting oral history interviews for the local historical society.

As farmers, servants, politicians and laborers spoke to Fuqua of their lives, "an amazing oral tradition and reverence for the past" surfaced, he says.

The issue of black and white relations in the rural county was a different matter. "It was really hard to get African-Americans to talk. It was hard to get anyone to talk about race in general," Fuqua, 36, says. Many of his sources, black and white, were embarrassed by the past, he says.

In stepped Darby to do the talking -- and the writing. In one of the book's passages, she says: "I finished the newspaper column by saying that nobody wants to live knowing that things won't ever be nice, and I hoped that one day a black tenant farmer would roar through town in the prettiest Cadillac ever, and maybe if a white man needed a ride home, he'd give him one."

But Darby challenges more than racial inequity. In more subtle ways, Fuqua addresses the limited options for women at the time, as when Darby is informed that girls can grow up to become either teachers or mothers, but not both at the same time.

Rogers, Fuqua's partner in the oral history project, grew up in Marlboro County. She was happy to see the project expand into a work of fiction. Yet, Rogers realizes that Darby is an idealization of the real place and time. In 1926, "to think that you would have had a little black girl come to a white girl's birthday party," as Evette attends Darby's, "I didn't envision that, and I don't think the people we interviewed saw it." Instead, Fuqua drew from the history "and made a wonderful story of a friendship that did break barriers."

Drawing directly from the tales told him by Marlboro County residents, Fuqua also captures a resourceful corner of the world, one textured by colorful language and rich traditions. Darby and her friend Beth make "penny peeks," little holes in the ground decorated with flowers and rocks and covered with glass to look "like store windows."

On Sundays, the Carmichaels go for a Sunday drive or walk the family property. Darby's father calls moonshine his "headache medicine." And during a fierce storm, a barn is tossed into the air and lands across the highway intact, with the happy mules still inside. Fuqua's still not sure whether this was a tall tale or true story, but still makes good use of it in Darby.

"Race is the biggest issue" in Darby, Fuqua says. "The book does a lot to honor that period and that place." But, he stresses, it's also important not to see a place solely in black and white, but to flesh it out in ways that make it universally, if imperfectly, human.

Excerpt

I slid under my sheets and squeezed into a tight ball so that all a ghost might see was a bundle of blankets and bed sheets. Sucking air real slow, my heart thumped in my body, and I started to get as hot as a wagon in the sun. Lying that way, so still and warm, I didn't have anything to do but wonder why I was nervous. I thought and thought. Then, as slow as a snail, I realized that it had to do with Evette, and understanding that made things less scary. On account of being nasty to her, I was feeling crummy. It wasn't that I was frightened. Guilt had woken me up. It was like the time I'd fetched a farm hand's thrown-away cigarette and took a puff. I knew I'd been a bad person, and I wondered what God thought.

-- Darby (Candlewick, $15.99)

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