A breathtaking tale of family secrets, from the bestselling author of An American Marriage
Chaurisse and Dana have a lot in common. They both grew up in Atlanta, they shop at the same stores, visit the same restaurants. But unlike Chaurisse, Dana knows the truth: that the girls share the same father. A father with two families, one of which he is determined to keep secret. When the girls meet and become friends, the unsteady balance of both their lives is threatened. Theirs is a relationship destined to explode.
Silver Sparrow is a heartrendingly insightful story about the delicate threads that bind families together. Elegant and wise, compassionate and profound, this is an unforgettable novel from the winner of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
When did I first discover that although I was an only child, my father was not my father and mine alone? I really can’t say. It’s something that I’ve known for as long as I’ve known that I had a father. I can only say for sure when I learned that this type of double-duty daddy wasn’t ordinary.
I was about five years old, in kindergarten, when the art teacher, Miss Russell, asked us to draw pictures of our families. While all the other children scribbled with their crayons or soft-leaded pencils, I used a blue-ink pen and drew James, Chaurisse, and Laverne. In the background was Raleigh, my father’s best friend, the only person we knew from his other life. I drew him with the crayon labelled “Flesh” because he is really light-skinned. This was years and years ago, but I still remember. I hung a necklace around the wife’s neck. I gave the girl a big smile, stuffed with square teeth. Near the left margin, I drew my mother and me standing by ourselves. With a marker, I blacked in Mother’s long hair and curving lashes. On my own face, I drew only a pair of wide eyes. Above, a friendly sun winked at all six of us.
The art teacher approached me from behind. “Now, who are these people you’ve drawn so beautifully?”
Charmed, I smiled up at her. “My family. My daddy has two wives and two girls.”
Cocking her head, she said, “I see.”
I didn’t think much more about it. I was still enjoying the memory of the way she pronounced beautifully. To this day, when I hear anyone say that word, I feel loved. At the end of the month, I brought all of my drawings home in a cardboard folder. James opened up his wallet, which he kept plump with two-dollar bills to reward me for my schoolwork. I saved the portrait, my masterpiece, for last, being as it was so beautifully drawn and everything.
My father picked the page up from the table and held it close to his face like he was looking for a coded message. Mother stood behind me, crossed her arms over my chest, and bent to place a kiss on the top of my head. “It’s okay,” she said.
“Did you tell your teacher who was in the picture?” James said.
I nodded slowly, the whole time thinking that I probably should lie, although I wasn’t quite sure why.
“James,” Mother said, “let’s not make a molehill into a mountain. She’s just a child.”
“Gwen,” he said, “this is important. Don’t look so scared. I’m not going to take her out behind the woodshed.” Then he chuckled, but my mother didn’t laugh.
“All she did was draw a picture. Kids draw pictures.”
“Go on in the kitchen, Gwen,” James said. “Let me talk to my daughter.”
My mother said, “Why can’t I stay in here? She’s my daughter, too.”
“You are with her all the time. You tell me I don’t spend enough time talking to her. So now let me talk.”
Mother hesitated and then released me. “She’s just a little kid, James. She doesn’t even know the ins and outs yet.”
“Trust me,” James said.
She left the room, but I don’t know that she trusted him not to say something that would leave me wounded and broken-winged for life. I could see it in her face. When she was upset she moved her jaw around invisible gum. At night, I could hear her in her room, grinding her teeth in her sleep. The sound was like gravel under car wheels.
“Dana, come here.” James was wearing a navy chauffeur’s uniform. His hat must have been in the car, but I could see the ridged mark across his forehead where the hatband usually rested. “Come closer,” he said.
I hesitated, looking to the space in the doorway where Mother had disappeared.
“Dana,” he said, “you’re not afraid of me, are you? You’re not scared of your own father, are you?”
His voice sounded mournful, but I took it as a dare. “No, sir,” I said, taking a bold step forward.
“Don’t call me sir, Dana. I’m not your boss. When you say that, it makes me feel like an overseer.”
I shrugged. Mother told me that I should always call him sir. With a sudden motion, he reached out for me and lifted me up on his lap. He spoke to me with both of our faces looking outward, so I couldn’t see his expression.
“Dana, I can’t have you making drawings like the one you made for your art class. I can’t have you doing things like that. What goes on in this house between your mother and me is grown people’s business. I love you. You are my baby girl, and I love you, and I love your mama. But what we do in this house has to be a secret, okay?”
“I didn’t even draw this house.”
James sighed and bounced me on his lap a little bit. “What happens in my life, in my world, doesn’t have anything to do with you. You can’t tell your teacher that your daddy has another wife. You can’t tell your teacher that my name is James Witherspoon. Atlanta ain’t nothing but a country town, and everyone knows everybody.”
“Your other wife and your other girl is a secret?” I asked him.
He put me down from his lap, so we could look at each other in the face. “No. You’ve got it the wrong way around. Dana, you are the one that’s a secret.”
Then he patted me on the head and tugged one of my braids. With a wink, he pulled out his billfold and separated three two-dollar bills from the stack. He handed them over to me and I clamped them in my palm.
“Aren’t you going to put them in your pocket?” “Yes, sir.”
And for once, he didn’t tell me not to call him that.
About the Author
Tayari Jones is the internationally bestselling author of four novels, the most of recent which, An American Marriage, was selected for Oprah Book Club with a first hardback printing of 400,000 copies. It went on to win the 2019 Aspen Words Literary Prize, the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, and the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019. Jones is the recipient of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a United States Artist Fellowship, NEA Fellowship and a Radcliffe Institute Bunting Fellowship. She is also a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Born in Atlanta, Jones is a graduate of Spelman College, University of Iowa, and Arizona State University. She is currently a professor of Creative Writing at Emory University and an Andrew Dickson White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University.
Thank you, One World Publications, for including me in this blog tour.