GOOD FENCES by Erika Ellis


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A first-novelist’s in-depth look at a black family’s move into a white world. Mabel, who ranks low on the self-esteem scale, thanks, in part, to a supercritical father, has continually underestimated herself. It’s no surprise, then, that she’s thrilled when “high yellow” newcomer Tom Spader shows up in her hometown of Lovejoy, Illinois, and proposes marriage soon after. Tom has nothing but a burning ambition to succeed in a white man’s world, and, sure enough, by the time the couple has three young children—Hilary, Stormy and Tommy—he’s a successful attorney at an otherwise all-white law firm, with dreams for even bigger and better things. When a controversial case involving a black man accused of arson turns the Spaders— minority friends and neighbors against them, it nevertheless earns Tom a promotion, and he decides, without consulting his wife, to move the whole family to lily-white, snobby Greenwich, Connecticut. On Mabel’s first day in Greenwich, a neighbor mistakes her for a maid, and from there on, Åber-suburban life goes from bad to worse. Mabel likes her own new maid, Sylvia, but Tom would be furious if she were ever to socialize with Sylvia and her friends or even attend a service with them at the nearest black church. The PTA agrees to meet at Mabel’s house, and although the women seem pleasant at first (Tom has instructed Mabel on what foods to serve and how to hold her teacup), they quickly show their true colors. As for the kids, the Greenwich schoolchildren aren’t any more open-minded than their parents; racial slurs, offensive jokes and other forms of cruelty are the norm. Eventually, Tom earns a judgeship, but Mabel remains ambivalent about his success. By the disturbing finish, the man’s real nature is revealed—and Mabel has to come to terms with her privileged children and precarious perch on the border of two very different worlds. Ellis has an appealing style and doesn—t resort to easy answers or platitudes—a combination that makes for a promising debut.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-44876-4
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1998