Betsey Brown, Ntozake Shange’s second novel, is a major literary achievement. A gifted and prolific writer of poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction, Shange is widely known for her critically acclaimed choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1977). In Betsey Brown, Shange displays the same impressive capacity for developing characters from the inside out, for creating characters readers care about, that marks her choreopoem as a contemporary masterpiece. This is not to suggest that Betsey Brown is a drama masquerading as a novel. On the contrary, Shange shapes her material with the care and skill of a writer who appreciates the particular requirements and possibilities of the form.
Loosely structured and conventional in design, Betsey Brown turns on a simple, straightforward plot. The central focus of the book is the title character’s painful struggle to cope with the anxieties and frustrations associated with the transition from childhood to adolescence. Betsey is the thirteen-year-old daughter of black, middle-class parents who live in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1959. Court-ordered school integration has created new challenges and fears for black youngsters and their parents, and the Brown family, consisting of Betsey, her three siblings, her maternal grandmother, an adolescent cousin, and her parents, confront the issue boldly. Betsey and her family, however, also face internal conflicts which contribute to her confusion and her sense of alienation. Through a series of carefully crafted scenes, the author explores Betsey’s response to society and to her family. In each of the key episodes, Betsey is forced to confront a reality that enables her to learn about herself and others.
In the opening scenes of the novel, a lack of order and discipline prevails in the Brown household as the children get ready for school. Annoyed by the uproar, Betsey wonders how she could become “a great anything with all this foolishness going on around her.” Betsey’s parents and her grandmother seem powerless to impose order on this chaos. Indeed, Jane Brown seems overwhelmed by the responsibilities of managing a household with five children; ironically, Jane depends upon Betsey to help her cope with the morning madness. Jane’s mother, Vida, lacks the physical stamina to maintain order in the household, and Greer seems to enjoy the raw vitality and energy that his children display. Because the adults have failed to provide a structured, disciplined home environment, the family’s well-being is jeopardized. The danger is suggested symbolically by the frequent references to the youngest child’s habit of playing with matches. Significantly, this threat of tragedy remains menacingly in the background until Carrie, the housekeeper, takes firm control of the children and the household. Not only does she break the child of his fascination with matches, but she also assists Betsey in her personal struggle to understand her place in the family.
Although he is not a disciplinarian, Greer has a major influence on Betsey’s development of a strong sense of self. From her father, Betsey learns to appreciate her black heritage. Beating on his conga drum and chanting, “We goin to show the world/ What can be done/ Cause the Negro race is a mighty one,” Greer calls the children together for their morning drill. He asks them questions about black history and culture. Betsey’s awareness of her black cultural heritage prompts her to select a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar to recite in her English class, while many of her black classmates choose poems by white poets. Greer’s influence on Betsey also enhances her appreciation of the broad spectrum of black life, without regard for class distinctions. Consequently, Betsey enjoys blues and other styles of black music, and...
(The entire section is 1584 words.)