Edith Jackson, by Rosa Guy, Viking Press, 187pp., $8.95 (Hard cover)
“I write about simple people. Ordinary people who do ordinary things, wants the ordinary: love, warmth, understanding, happiness. This is universal. But it is likewise true that no life is ordinary, no life is simple, especially in fiction. Human characteristics such as goodness, selfishness, kindness, wickedness, bravery, or cowardice are all clichés that become unique only where the universal becomes particular. Particularity gains meaning only in time and place. My time is now; my place, so far is Harlem, USA” —Rosa Guy
Rosa Guy was born in Diego Martin, Trinidad, and raised in Harlem. The meeting of the West Indian culture and the American culture is often dichotomous. The West Indian becomes a minority within a minority where the logical process of assimilation into the mainstream of American society often serves to isolate him from his original culture. She is a graduate student of that experience and her works reflect it. Her latest novel, Edith Jackson, is the final work of a trilogy. The Friends and Ruby were the first two. Edith Jackson is a complete work unlike Ruby which is a continuation of The Friends.
Ms Guy writes of simple people but her stories are not simple, they are complex little montages of human relationships. Her milieu is family life and its evolution; its pains and laughter, failures and victories, dissolution and hopes.
Edith Jackson is the story of Edith and her three sisters [Bessie, Mimie, and Suzy], orphans living in a Foster Home in upstate New York. Edith, the eldest of the girls [almost 18 years old] assumes the role of mother to her sisters. She busily weaves plans to get a home of their own and to wed Mr Brown, the nephew of a woman [Mrs Bates] who has perfected dream killing into an art.
Edith’s sisters, unaware of their sister’s machinations and ambitions, have plans of their own. Bessie attempts to woo Uncle Daniels, her foster mother’s friend. Mimie hopes to be adopted by her best friend’s mother and Suzy loses herself in a world of fantasy.
At the end, Edith’s mothering plans fail and ultimately ‘Edith realizes that people must be responsible for shaping their own destinies; as the structure of caste and class leaves each of us on our own,” says Ms Guy.
It is a simple story, a story of love, acceptance and security and Rosa Guy has a compassionate feel for the details of human behavior. The characters are not portrayed in a set frame. They change color like a chameleon to suit the different current of changes in their environment. What the story supports is that we are all the same, and that the minimal increment of change in our character makes us unique. The social condition that surrounds the characters in Edith Jackson, is a catalyst not an overwhelming force that cannot be managed — it’s an entity and a member of the cast.
Ms Guy’s books The Friends and Ruby have been chosen by the American Library Association as best books for young adults. She is also founder of the Harlem Writers Guild. Of her work Ms. Guy says, “I do not intentionally write for young adults, I write for all age groups. I am a West Indian writing of the West Indian experience in America. I am here, I am a part of this culture and I relate to this culture in its totality.’’ Edith Jackson is basically an extension of that thought, for Ms Guy has moved from interfacing the West Indian culture with the American culture in Ruby to mainstream middle class America in Edith Jackson where the clash of culture does not occur.