On the surface, 1959 recounts the rite of passage of Katherine “Willie” Tarrant. Through the use of a first-person narrator, Davis presents an evocative portrait of a young African American teenager living during the 1950’s, an era beset by injustice and growing racial unrest.
The novel opens with the razing of Turner, Virginia. Above the sounds of bulldozers rumbling over what were once modest wooden bungalows, the adult Willie Tarrant muses over the history of the town. She imagines the arrival of an African woman three hundred years earlier. This woman, abandoned by a slaver because she is sick and therefore not a marketable commodity, has no name. Willie opts to call her “Gambia.” A woman of immense dignity and fortitude, Gambia does not die. By her very survival, she becomes the progenitor of Turner’s African American community. Subsequently, Willie regards Gambia as her spiritual kin. Although the town has been leveled and the mythical Gambia lives only in Willie’s imagination, Willie the adult has returned in triumph. What follows is her story told in retrospect.
On the same day in July, 1959, Willie Tarrant turned twelve and Billie Holiday died. Willie’s world is the world of most adolescents, one characterized by preoccupations with music, clothes, and the opposite sex. When her father, a college professor, tells her that twelve is the age of reason, Willie sees this as the opportunity to have her childish braids cut off in preparation for her first date.
Willie reveals that her interests transcend the teenage world of boys, clothes, and music. She is mesmerized by the exploits of prominent dictators in the news, among them Fulgencio Batista, Papa Doc Duvalier, and Fidel Castro. Willie’s fascination with dictators and guerrillas stems from the white community’s concern over Cuban affairs, which she equates...
(The entire section is 767 words.)