The pieces in this volume range over several decades of Petry’s career and provide a compact introduction to her imaginative concerns, chief among them racism’s psychological consequences. In the prize-winning story “Like a Winding Sheet,” a husband’s impotence before the racist assaults he sees all around him makes him respond to his wife’s affectionate teasing with the beating he is forbidden to direct at his real oppressors. His actions lay bare the starkness of the struggle between male and female in Petry’s world and the sobering betrayals that occur in it.
“In Darkness and Confusion,” a meditation on the Harlem riot of 1943, fictionalizes a historical event. The story’s protagonist, William Jones, a man who has worked hard to secure a better life for his son, witnesses the killing of a black soldier and erupts into a violence that expresses his grief and rage; Petry assigns Jones responsibility for leading the first mobs.
In “Miss Muriel” and “The New Mirror,” Petry creates a black family much like her own—the Layens are professionals who own the pharmacy in a small New England town. The adolescent girl who narrates these tales speaks of “the training in issues of race” she has received over the years, not only through casual bigotries but also through the painful self-consciousness of respectable people like her parents, whose behavior is a continual refutation of cultural stereotypes. The child learns to use the codes by which the black middle class shields itself from white contempt, and she learns as well the burden of always acting with an eye on the reputation of “the Race”: “all of us people with this dark skin must help hold the black island inviolate.”
Against the most aggressive forms of...
(The entire section is 728 words.)