Love and justice

Two black authors explore tales of same-sex and interracial teenage love in a new crop of young-adult novels. In her monthly children's books column, Polly Shulman reviews 'Lives of Our Own' by Lorri Hewett and 'The House you Pass On the Way' by Jacqueline Woodson

Published February 24, 1998 12:55PM (EST)

Publishers know how compelling adolescents find justice and love. All those hormones zipping around make teens eager to invent whole new self-definitions, give them the power to freak out their parents as never before and transform what were once mere fantasies into serious possibilities. Along with deplorable developments in the hair and skin departments comes a deeper and more active engagement with serious matters. Whom will I love? What if my friends disapprove? Is any grown-up capable of understanding? How can a world exist in which cruelty, inequality and heartbreak are possible? What can I do to change it? Will I survive?

The tricky task confronting a writer of novels for adolescents is to raise such questions without making suicide look like the sensible choice, while resisting the temptation to serve up artificially sweetened hope. Teenagers may have a taste for rainbows and unicorns, but they know when they're being talked down to. Two new novels, by African-American writers young enough to remember adolescence in embarrassing detail, do an excellent job of addressing their readers with respect.

"Lives of Our Own," by Lorri Hewett, follows a pair of high-school girls, one black, one white, through a harrowing period. The earnest, almost generic title -- after all, what coming-of-age story couldn't be called "Lives of Our Own"? -- is nevertheless emblematic of the book's power and charm. Like her teen readers (if they're lucky), Hewett refuses to let the chance of sounding clichid keep her from forcefully exploring heartfelt emotions.

Shawna, the African-American heroine, is new in Dessina, a small Georgia town, although her father grew up there. Separated from Shawna's mother, an ambitious lawyer, he has taken his daughter to live in his mother's house. Shawna feels out of place in Dessina. Her expensive car and clothes set her off from the other African-American girls, who fear she may be a snob, while the white girls have no use for her at all. They're busy planning the Old South Ball, an event at which the black students aren't welcome. While not used to such dramatic segregation, Shawna is no stranger to somewhat subtler forms of prejudice. Back in Colorado, for example, she had a white boyfriend who was ashamed to acknowledge their relationship in public.

Shawna's chapters alternate with chapters written from the point of view of Kari, the white heroine. Kari's grandmother spent the best moments of her life at the Old South Ball, and she can't wait to live them again through Kari -- particularly since her own daughter, Kari's mother, never enjoyed that sort of femininity. At first, Kari goes along with the program unquestioningly. But when Shawna writes an editorial for the school paper attacking the ball, Kari finds herself, to her own astonishment, making a distinctly unfeminine gesture. She throws a rock through Shawna's grandmother's window. The incident hurdles the two girls into a star-crossed friendship, as they discover that Kari's mother and Shawna's father knew each other in high school and become convinced that they share an illicit sibling. How else to explain Shawna's father's sudden departure for points north without finishing his senior year, or Kari's mother's nine-month stay with an out-of-town aunt? The trip Shawna and Kari take together to search for their joint sibling rattles their love lives, realigns their social status and leaves them with a friendship they never imagined. "Lives of Our Own" is a melodrama with the potential to transform enemies into sisters.

Jacqueline Woodson's brief, lyrical novel "The House You Pass on the Way" takes the theme of otherness even further. While Hewett describes two separate but connected communities, with the forbidden love happening where they meet, Woodson takes her readers into a single community, the Southern town of Sweet Gum, where almost everyone is black. The heroine, Staggerlee (nee Evangeline), has a triple load of issues to set her apart from the other girls in town. Her mother is one of the few white women in town; there's a statue downtown of her paternal grandparents, famous African-American singers who were martyred when a bomb went off at a civil rights protest; and although she hasn't told a soul, not even her mother, Staggerlee is gay. In sixth grade she kissed a classmate, Hazel, who soon afterward "found a way to never speak to me again."

When Staggerlee's cousin Trout comes to stay, Staggerlee feels for the first time that she has someone to talk to. The two share more than just the urge to rename themselves (Staggerlee took her name from the outlaw hero of a ballad their grandparents sang; Trout's real name is Tyler, but she admires the feisty fish). When Trout explains that her mother sent her on the visit to learn to be "a lady," Staggerlee realizes at once what that's code for:

"Staggerlee knew why [Aunt] Ida Mae had sent Trout here; she could see it in Trout's eyes and she could feel it when Trout sat down next to her. There was a feeling growing inside Trout, and Staggerlee knew it because it was growing inside her too. Maybe it had always been there. Maybe it had started before she was born and would keep growing -- into the earth -- long after she had died. She knew it was secret and shameful. When Mama had given her a taste of wine for becoming a woman, she knew that was different somehow -- that the woman thing happened to every girl and because of this, they could celebrate it. But what was happening to her and Trout -- that was different. They were alone together. There was no one standing behind a closed door smiling and holding out a glass of wine."

Trout's visit only partly relieves Staggerlee's loneliness. Soon after she returns home, Trout stops answering Staggerlee's letters and phone calls, a move that echoes Hazel's. When a letter eventually arrives, it's signed, ominously, "Tyler." Although she feels that she's lost her soul mate, Staggerlee counts her blessings -- loving parents, a few new friends -- and tries to understand Trout's defection. Despite her heroic name, Staggerlee is an expert at patiently waiting for adult freedom.

In its way, that resignation is as important an adolescent skill as a flair for melodrama, and it's much harder to find in fiction written for teenagers. Woodson and Hewett understand how difficult it is to live up to the expectations of another generation, how hard it is to take lessons from history while making decisions for oneself. Their novels should reassure young readers that society can change, if slowly, and that change is worth waiting and working for.

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By Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman edits news articles for the journal Science.

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