The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The novel contains an interesting mixture of fictional and historical figures. Because it is Willie’s story on a primary level, the changes in other characters, as well as in Willie herself, are filtered through the point of view of an adolescent. Davis captures the concerns and values of a twelve-year-old by interweaving the social and political issues of the time with popular culture. The music motif permeates the novel, beginning with the reference to Billie Holiday and sustained by references to jazz, rhythm and blues, and Willie’s disdain for Pat Boone. The predominant music of the white culture seems empty to Willie, yet he songs of Billie Holiday are beyond her comprehension. The Willie Tarrant of the beginning of the novel does not have the life experience to appreciate the rich, painfully poignant music of Lady Day. The adult Willie Tarrant does. Willie’s fascination with such figures as Papa Doc Duvalier and Fidel Castro is augmented by youthful romanticism. For example, she compares Castro to Dwight D. Eisenhower, finding Eisenhower wanting and Castro a Cuban version of Marlon Brando.

Much of the Tarrants’ familial history is embellished by the creative Willie, especially the episodes dealing with Aunt Fannie and Gambia. Willie’s romanticizing of her ancestors is her way of creating the strong, positive female role models she believes that her life is lacking, initially not realizing that the authoritative Mrs. Taliaferro and her...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

1959 Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Willie Tarrant

Willie Tarrant, the narrator, a bright twelve-year-old girl who, in 1959, is preoccupied with boys, kissing, and music. After she is selected to be one of six African American students to integrate the all-white Patrick Henry Junior High, Willie’s mundane world is shattered. She and the all-black community of Turner, Virginia, become embroiled in the civil rights struggle. As this naïve yet spirited young girl comes of age during this turbulent period in American history, she shares her eloquence and sense of dignity with her community. Willie’s narrative becomes a metanarrative for the African American experience.

Dixon Tarrant

Dixon Tarrant, Willie’s father, a man who has slipped into complacency after the death of his activist wife. He is a permissive parent to Willie and her older brother Preston, more concerned with gardening than with parenting. Dixon, a chemistry professor at the local college, is apolitical at the beginning of the novel. His slight participation in community activities stems from his need to perpetuate his memories of his late wife rather than from any social impetus. He has immured himself from political and social issues. Only after eight Turner College students are jailed for staging a peaceful sit-in at a local lunch counter does Dixon become involved in the desegregation movement. He becomes one of the community leaders, charging his children and his community to...

(The entire section is 506 words.)