BETSEY BROWN by Ntozake Shange
Kirkus Star

BETSEY BROWN

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Believe it or not, the book that comes to mind again and again while reading Shange's new novel--about growing up black in late-1950s St. Louis--is Kathryn Forbes' Mama's Bank Account, that sweetest of growing-pain/family classics, unpretentiously episodic and reliably heart-warming. Not that Shange's distinctive voice is absent here: there are earthy details, occasional flares of lyricism, and grand chunks of no-nonsense humor. But the primary tones are warmth and affection--as we follow a year or so in the life of the middle-class Brown family: Papa is a doctor, a lover of art and jazz who quizzes the kids every morning on Negro culture; Mama is a social-worker, lighter-skinned and more conventionally proper; Grandma is her mother, always disgruntled about how ""black and kinky-headed"" her son-in-law is; and the five kids include little pyromaniac Allard, live-in nephew Charlie, and 13-year-old Betsey--who's at the center of most of the vignettes. When the Browns hire a country girl to help out with chores and kids, it's Betsey who sabotages Bernice and gets her fired--a triumph that soon brings shame. The next housemaid candidate is removed by Grandma, who catches Regina and her boyfriend Roscoe giving the kids a demonstration of kissing. (""Y'all were mighty impressed with some low-down niggah mess,"" Grandma scolds.) And Betsey has the worries and yearnings that go with turning 13: a crush on basketball player Eugene Boyd; ""anatomical explorations and beautification"" (counting pubic hairs) with Veejay, Charlotte Ann, and white Susan Linda. But the major crises here begin about midway through--when the Brown kids are among those chosen to be, via busings, the first blacks in some white public schools. There are initial fears (fanned by Grandma), an ugly incident or two. More important, the heightened atmosphere highlights the conflict between proud-black Papa and genteel Mama--with Betsey feeling caught in the middle. (""Every time she played music she was a niggah. . . If she wanted to boycott her school, she was a rabble-rouser. If she wanted to eat at Howard Johnson's, she was giving whites more than was their due. No matter what she said or did, it wasn't right."") So Betsey runs away for a day--to the local hairdresser/madam; her return becomes a family miracle; but before the cozy fadeout, there'll be an even more dramatic Papa/Mama split. . . over whether or not the kids should join in a civil-rights demonstration. Especially for the YA audience: a fresh, unself-conscious novel of black middle-class life--not color blind by any means, but free and secure enough to let the Brown family be diverse, funny, and sweetly human.

Pub Date: May 14th, 1985
ISBN: 0312134347
Publisher: St. Martin's