Rosa Guy Essay - Critical Essays

Guy, Rosa (Cuthbert)

Introduction

Rosa (Cuthbert) Guy 1928–

West Indian-born American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and editor.

Guy writes with sensitivity and compassion about black youths, often drawing upon her West Indian heritage and her experiences as a transplanted youth in Harlem. While portraying teenagers who mature by resolving conflicts, Guy also pursues special problems of black ghetto youths as they attempt to transcend the roles society has traditionally ascribed to them.

Guy's realistic depiction of ghetto life and the adversity facing black youths comes through especially well in her first novel, Bird at My Window, in which a brilliant black youth is destroyed both by exploitation from whites and by the subservient attitudes of his own community. The Friends, generally acknowledged as Guy's finest novel, explores the themes of friendship and family relationships. Following The Friends with two companion volumes, Ruby and Edith Jackson, Guy completed a compelling trilogy that perceptively reflects the struggles of youth.

Guy is respected by readers and critics for portraying contemporary conflicts. She has been especially commended for creating black heroines with whom readers can identify. In doing so, she has helped to fill a significant void in young adult literature.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed. and Something about the Author, Vol. 14.)

Glendy Culligan

Sincerity, compassion, and the all too evident authenticity of her material offset the merely routine technical competence of [Bird At My Window by Rosa Guy] who has survived the indignities of growing up in Harlem without the crippling effects of anger.

Her hero, Wade Williams, has all the reasons for rage that have been chronicled by James Baldwin but none of the saving techniques for putting them to use.

The reader first meets Wade in the psychopathic ward of a New York City hospital, where he has been committed after beating his sister Faith during a drunken brawl that he can't remember. Unfolding bleakly backward as well as forward in time, the novel explores the mystery of Wade's brutality toward the only person he trusts. The frustrations of the childhood that he and Faith shared, leading so inevitably to the sterile violence of maturity, are detailed with a precision all the more painful for the author's lack of rhetorical pyrotechnics.

Her final indictment does, however, contain an element of surprise when it points the finger of blame not only at the white exploiters but at failure of value judgment within the Negro culture. Like novelist William Kelley, Miss Guy suggests that even in a world where the whites are proven villains, Negroes can never be heroes so long as they think of themselves as puppets.

Glendy Culligan, "Seeds for Thought." in Book Week—New York Herald Tribune (© 1966, The Washington Post), January 9, 1966, p. 16.

Thomas L. Vince

When first encountered [in "Bird at My Window"], Wade Williams is recovering in the psychopathic ward of a New York hospital…. Unlike the bird at his window, thirty-eight-year-old Wade has never been free and, as the novel unfolds, one is given a stunning insight into the forces that hampered his freedom, discouraged his talent, and crushed his spirit….

All the frustrations of the Harlem Negro are sounded clearly through Wade's experiences. Family problems are foremost, especially those posed by the matriarchal system which is willing to settle for respectability alone; and which is deplored for what it can do to break a man. The inevitable racial clashes both in New York and in France where Wade is sent during World War II are movingly portrayed, and the perennial problems of sex, fundamentalism, and alcohol are carefully, but never sensationally, explored. What is achieved is a balanced portrait of a man who might have been, but who either wilfully missed his opportunities or was denied them by an unsympathetic society….

This is Rosa Guy's first novel, but considering the intensity and power it evokes, we can expect more from such promising talent. Her demonstrative skills in character portrayal and in the etching of crucial incidents are certain to keep the reader absorbed. Some of the language and a few of the scenes may upset the prudish, but there is none of the garish prurience or repetitious vulgarity so common in modern fiction. "Bird at My Window" may even become a commercial success; but, whatever its fate, it deserves critical attention for being, perhaps, the most significant novel about the Harlem Negro since James Baldwin's "Go Tell It on the Mountain."

Thomas L. Vince, in his review of "Bird at My Window," in Best Sellers (copyright 1966, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 25, No. 20, January 15, 1966, p. 403.

Miles M. Jackson

[Bird At My Window] is about ghetto life in Harlem and the relationship between young Wade Williams and members of his family. Wade, sensitive and intelligent, has very little choice in his life because of a domineering mother who places on him the responsibilities normally reserved for the father of a family. But there is no father in the Williams family and very little money. As a youth, Wade encounters all of the harshness of Harlem and an overseas tour of duty with the Army leaves him as a disillusioned misanthrope…. What happens to Wade Williams in Harlem is a story we should all be familiar with by now. The devastating effects of life in Harlem as a subject in fiction runs the risk of becoming overworked, perhaps to some it has already been overworked and by now tiring. But to this reviewer there is always room for another well-written novel that uses ghetto life in Harlem as a subject. At times this work comes off very well, especially those sections showing the conflicts between mother and son; but all in all, this is a borderline novel. There are too many parts in the book that smack of the sociological treatise.

Miles M. Jackson, in his review of "Bird at My Window," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, February 1, 1966; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1966 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 91, No. 3, February 1, 1966, pp. 713-14.

Victor P. Hass

[Rosa Guy knows Harlem's] hopes and its desperations, its ugliness and its bits of beauty, its reeking squalor, sights, sounds, drunks, drifters, and the occasional patches of happiness sewn on the garment of its over-all awfulness. All of these things are woven into the fabric of her punishing first novel ["Bird at My Window"].

She makes Wade Williams, the tragic anti-hero of her story, as real as a toothache….

Wade's tragedy was that he was born with the IQ of a genius but, for all the chance in life he had, he might as well have been born an idiot. Once, just once, Wade was given a chance "to make something of himself" but thru fear and inexperience he fumbled it and no other chance presented itself….

Society did need him for World War II and it found the black rages to which he was subject made him an appallingly efficient killer in uniform. But after the shooting stopped, society lacked the patience and understanding to unmake its machine of destruction. It sent its de-uniformed killer back to Harlem….

It can be argued, of course, that other remarkably efficient killers made the transition from war to peace without too much difficulty but what Mrs. Guy seems to be saying is that they perhaps didn't have to cope with doors slammed in their faces, racial prejudice, lack of opportunities, and ghetto life.

It would be idle to suggest that you can enjoy "Bird at My Window" in any acceptable definition of that word but it is possible, nevertheless, to admire the way she has translated into living terms [Henry David] Thoreau's inspired phrase "quiet desperation." This is her triumph and it is by no means a small one.

Victor P. Hass, "A Case of Quiet Desperation" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Books Today, Vol. II, No. 7, February 20, 1966, p. 6.

Alice Walker

I feel especially blessed when reading the books of Virginia Hamilton, Toni Cade Bambara, Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Louise Merriweather, Toni Morrison and other fine engagé black women writers; for I am thinking of a young black girl who spent the first 20 years of her life without seeing a single book in which the heroine was a person like herself….

[Now, with books like] Rosa Guy's heart-slammer, "The Friends," I relive those wretched, hungry-for-heroines years and am helped to verify the existence and previous condition of myself….

[The] struggle that is the heart of this very important book [is] the fight to gain perception of one's own real character; the grim struggle for self-knowledge and the almost killing internal upheaval that brings the necessary growth of compassion and humility and courage, so that friendship (of any kind, but especially between those of notable economic and social differences) can exist.

This book is called a "juvenile." So be a juvenile while you read it. Rosa Guy will give you back a large part of the memory of those years that you've been missing.

Alice Walker, in her review of "The Friends," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company: reprinted by permission), November 4, 1973, p. 26.

Ethel L. Heins

[The Friends] is a penetrating story of considerable emotional depth. Two teenaged girls—Phyllisia and her older sister Ruby—come to New York from the West Indies to join their émigré parents in "this trap of asphalt and stone called Harlem." Phyllisia's strangeness draws the fury of her classmates, and she is persecuted for her unfamiliar accent, her well-tended clothes, and her knowledgeable answers to the teacher's belligerent, sarcastic questions. The only amiable girl is Edith, poor and scruffy, whose cheerful assurances of friendship are accepted by Phyll with resentment and humiliation. To complicate matters, Phyll feels bitterness and defiance towards her father, Calvin, a big, boastful...

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The Times Literary Supplement

There is affection … in Rosa Guy's short novel, The Friends, but also a hard core of toughness, which goes with its New York setting….

Rosa Guy's evocation of the hot, steamy city, the subways, the coolness of air-conditioned shops after the sweltering street, the oasis of Central Park, the narrow restaurant where Phyllisia's father works, aproned and sweating, alongside his employees, make this a vigorous and unusual book. Nor is the New York scene so alien as to be incomprehensible, perhaps because the heroine is herself an outsider and so views it all through foreign, critical eyes. And if the details of the plot smack slightly of the Dickensian—Edith's father vanished, her brother...

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M. R. Hewitt

Neither friend [in The Friends] is very endearing; one a rather priggish girl from a proud West Indian family, the other a sluttish, thieving but ever loyal and loving drudge struggling to keep her parentless family together. Set in Harlem against a background of prejudice (between the varying strata of coloured families) and violence, the girls are growing to maturity with the usual problems of adolescence magnified by the difficulties of the society in which they live. The style of writing is idiomatic and rather difficult in its unfamiliarity, the setting and life style is alien—one is conscious of being an outsider to the Harlem community—and this leads to difficulty in identifying with the characters...

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Michael H. Miller

[In The Friends] Rosa Guy has written a real novel about real people in a real world. The characters' problems arise naturally from their background, circumstances, personalities and relationships; they are not problems imposed by an author who wants to write about problems. The story is full of incident; the life of Harlem is ever-present, though rarely obtrusive; the writing is alive, with extra richness in the West Indian speech. Highly recommended.

Michael H. Miller, in his review of "The Friends," in Children's Book Review (© 1975 Five Owls Press Ltd.; all rights reserved), Vol. IV, No. 4, Winter, 1974–75, p. 152.

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Publishers Weekly

["Ruby" is] an intensely committed novel talking directly to teenagers, black, white, particularly those who are uncertain and scared of what their loneliness may involve them in. This is a very sensitive novel in which adolescent homosexuality is viewed as nothing so frightening, but perhaps just a way-step towards maturity. Ruby is desperately unhappy, unfairly labeled as an "Uncle Tom" in her school. She becomes drawn to Daphne, a strong, dramatic black girl, who, we will learn, has her own secret fears and family problems. Ruby's father is a lost, lonely widower. Her younger sister is spunky, a reader finding release in books. If Rosa Guy had taken a camera and put it down in 1970 (the year of her novel) on a...

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Zena Sutherland

[Ruby] has some strong qualities and some weaknesses: the characters are vividly real and distinct, the relationships (especially those within the family of the stern father and the two motherless girls) are perceptively seen, the affair between Daphne and Ruby treated with dignity; on the other hand, the first physical encounter is followed by a rhapsodical paragraph that includes such florid writing as, "Love was orange. A blinding orange pulling the world out of darkness, tinging the air with gold … orange that opened the sense into exquisite, inexpressible joy. Love was gray … the gray of Daphne's eyes…. Love was red…." Such prose halts the story, as do the unconvincing sparring dialogues between...

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The Horn Book Magazine

[Ruby] is essentially a teenage novel: rich, full-bodied, and true in its portrayal of the world of the Black teenager…. Ruby, deeply sensitive and lonely, finds love in a secret homosexual relationship with Daphne, a beautiful, arrogant Black classmate. Their experience fills a desperate need at a crucial time in the lives of both girls, affording them an early insight into the depths and complexities of human relations and emotions. The author writes gracefully in the West Indian idiom as she analyzes perceptively the problems of young Blacks facing up to the emotional, political, social, and educational responsibilities of their own lives.

A review of "Ruby: A...

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Regina Williams

Author Guy has drawn her characters broadly [in Ruby]: Calvin Cathy is a strict, hard-working head of household who feels the loss of his wife deeply and is somewhat terrified by the task of raising two daughters alone. Daphne is an arrogant, domineering person who seeks to exercise absolute control over the elements of her environment, including and especially over the people to whom she is exposed. Disinclined to accommodate other people's needs and desires, she is strikingly authoritarian and power-oriented. Ruby, being unsure of herself and of her identity, is passive, submissive and dependent—a perfect foil for the superiority syndrome out of which Daphne operates.

Instead of the two...

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Pamela D. Pollack

Edith Jackson's hard luck story started in Guy's The Friends…. On her own [in Edith Jackson], after rejecting a Reverend with roving hands as a foster father, Edith hooks up for hit-and-run sex with a street person who telegraphs his undesirability at every turn…. At the end, Edith is awaiting an abortion—pathetically, her one and only act of self-determination. Edith is no statistic—there's complexity in Guy's portrait of one so stunted she can't even make it as a martyr—but the impact is diminished by overwrought writing and the author's short cut of cataloging characters' feelings ("Crying, hysterical. Going crazy.") instead of conveying them.

Pamela...

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Paul Heins

Completing a trilogy about contemporary Black life, which includes The Friends … and Ruby, [Edith Jackson] explores the experiences of Phyllisia's poverty-stricken friend Edith Jackson. In a first-person account, occasionally colloquial and only infrequently coarse, the seventeen-year-old orphan tells of her efforts to keep her young sisters—Bessie, Suzy, and Minnie—together as a family…. The novel, written in a naturalistic vein, is powerful in its depiction of character and creates scenes memorable for their psychological truth; and so well integrated are theme, character, and situation that they redeem whatever is superficially sordid in the story.

Paul...

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Beryle Banfield

On one level, [Edith Jackson] is a skillfully written account of [a] seventeen-year-old hero's determination to assume full responsibility for her three orphaned sisters, "her family," as soon as she reaches eighteen. But in 187 pages of tight, dramatic writing, Ms. Guy manages to address several critical social issues and to bring into sharp focus those special problems that are encountered by women of varying ages.

There is a devastating indictment of the residential care bureaucracy, referred to in the novel as "The Institution." Exposed are the gross insensitivity to the needs of children, the damaging effect of the constant shunting of children from one foster home to another, and the...

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Zena Sutherland

[In Edith Jackson] Edith, who appeared in the author's The Friends, is now seventeen; although she and her three younger sisters live with a foster mother, it is Edith who feels responsible for the others, who vows that when she is of age she will work and provide a home for them…. [When the story ends] what is left unsaid (and is clear) is that Edith has admitted to herself that the encouragement Mrs. Bates has offered, and her help, will be accepted. Proud and strong, Edith had been insisting on getting a job and holding the family together—which meant accepting the role of mother to her sisters—and now she can admit that she can change her life if she will focus on her own needs. The...

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Jerrie Norris

"The Disappearance," Rosa Guy's fourth novel, is a compelling and suspenseful story. The reader is immediately captured by the characters, who are so sharply defined, so clearly who they are. Dora Belle could only by a quirky, middle-aged West Indian and only Ann Aimsley, as Guy draws her, could be the queen of her dust-free, plastic-covered home. It is as if Guy excised whole chunks of life and brought her characters up whole. Juxtaposing characters and details of their lives, Guy outlines a picture. She paints a picture of images built up and arduously maintained to mask those common human frailties—fear, loneliness and insecurity—which touch people wherever they live. And so we see those frailties as they move...

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Robert Unsworth

[The Disappearance] is a combination of a Black "street boy's" refluctant acceptance into a Black middle-class family's life and the suspense of an eight-year-old girl's disappearance…. There are some soft points: surely the police spend more time and effort searching for lost Black girls than is indicated here, and the Aimsley family seems to accept Perk's disappearance a bit too readily. Some readers might have difficulty with the Black and West Indian speech; others may not appreciate the "down" ending. But, by story's close, each character has touched us and the fine delineation of all of them stands out as Guy's greatest strength.

Robert Unsworth, in his review of...

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Jean Fritz

[In "The Disappearance"] Rosa Guy has taken a plot and turned the people inside out to give us both a cliff-hanger and a shrewd commentary on human nature….

The question is bound to be asked: Is this book, with its overtones of violence and sex, really intended for young readers 12 and up? In a way, the answer is the book's theme. Innocence is not beautiful, Miss Guy says. Behind lace curtains on pretty streets, ugly things happen, just as they do in Harlem. And perhaps the so-called disadvantaged have the advantage after all, for they already understand that. Certainly all readers will be riveted by the suspense in this story, but it may be that only those older than 12 will understand the...

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Ethel L. Heins

[The Friends established Rosa Guy] as a major novelist concerned with "the grotesque in life and character." Now she has written a raw and powerful work that centers on a sixteen-year-old boy from the streets of Harlem…. The second half of the book is a shocking, suspenseful whodunit; but all of the book, transcending race and environment, is a remarkably mature exposure—as clean and penetrating as surgery—of fear and loneliness, desperation and suffering, deception and pride. (pp. 62-3)

Ethel L. Heins, in her review of "The Disappearance," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1980 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. LVI, No. 1, February, 1980, pp....

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Geoff Fox

There is little gentleness in [Rosa Guy's] Harlem. Within a few lines [of The Disappearance], we are stumbling among empty wine bottles and cockroaches with Imamu, a sixteen year old black Muslim recently returned from a detention centre and looking for his mother, an alcoholic widowed by Vietnam. Imamu has been offered the chance of better things with the Aimley family in Brooklyn…. [The] plot becomes a skilfully told, absorbing thriller as Imamu is suspected of being implicated in the disappearance of the Aimleys' young daughter. Only 10 years ago, Leon Garfield could say to an approving audience that a children's book must end optimistically—here, the first glimpse of the lost child is of a decomposing...

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David Rees

[The Disappearance is] particularly good in its ability to evoke a sense of place—the contrasts between middle-class black New York (Brooklyn) and the crime-ridden ghetto of Harlem. Imamu, a teenager in trouble with the police, is fostered by a kindly, fairly well-to-do family, whose attitudes to him change for the worse when their younger daughter, Perk, disappears. It is interesting to see how black liberal modes of thinking crumble; how the tensions within the family turn to ugly hysteria when the smooth easy-going surface of their lives is destroyed.

The characters are credible; they develop and grow, not always in the way the reader expects. But the book is marred by absurdly improbable...

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KENNETH L. DONELSON and ALLEEN PACE NILSEN

The confusion and disagreement regarding sex roles is not just an adult problem that youth does not have to think about. On the contrary, it is probably more important to them than to most adults whose lifestyles and obligations are already so established that all they can comfortably do is play the game out to its conclusion. In light of this, the best of the current writers are presenting honest portrayals of all kinds of relationships and roles and then hoping that young readers can observe and make choices that will best fit their own personalities and needs.

Rosa Guy's trilogy, The Friends, Ruby, and Edith Jackson, exemplifies one of these alternative explorations that would not...

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Zena Sutherland

Although Guy writes fairly well, she is an uneven unwriter; [Mirror of Her Own] is marred by oddly constructed passages like "Gloria, leaned back and stretched out, sinking in her waistline," or, referring to a clock, "The ticking … emphasized the stillness … rubbing against Mary's sensitized nerves," and by a repeated and awkward attempt to reproduce phonetically Mary's nervous stuttering. The greater weakness, however, is in the diffusion of the story line; the author uses the book as a vehicle for expressing her ideas about race relations and class differences and the story remains a showcase rather than a narrative. (pp. 171-72)

Zena Sutherland, in her review of...

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Lillian L. Shapiro

[The protagonist of Mirror of Her Own]—Mary Abbot, 17, is shy and plain and stutters. Her efforts to find acceptance within her high-school crowd are handicapped not only by her unfortunate friendship with abrasive and prejudiced Gloria but also by the contrast between Mary and her beautiful, talented 22-year-old sister Roxanne, the object of attention from the very eligible John Drysdale…. The main theme is Mary's unrequited "love" for John, obviously unworthy, unrequited only until too much wine, pot and cocaine bring about the outcome for which Mary has yearned. It is, however, clearly a case of exploitation on the part of John, and Mary's flight through a swampy wood after her escapade is made to seem...

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Kirkus Reviews

["Mirror of Her Own" is a] vehement, bluntly cast portrayal of an upper-crust community called Oak Bluff and a timid, drab family that reflects its values and dynamics. Shy, stuttering Mary Abbot, 17, has always been slighted in favor of her beautiful blond older sister Roxanne…. The events, centering on frivolous teenage society (some characters are in their twenties, but no more mature), take place the summer Roxanne is going with John Drysdale, the playboy son of rich and powerful neighbors who have illegally appropriated some of the Abbots' land. Mary has had a crush on John for years, and the novel climaxes when she goes to a big Oak Bluff party, gets high, and goes off to bed with John. Next morning, alone in...

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Francis Goskowski

It is impossible to respond to [Mirror of Her Own] with pleasure or to write about it without scorn. In Mirror of Her Own no one except foreigners behaves well; no one is honest, brave, or sincere; no one has the sense to reject the slobs and cruel little misses who inhabit the Abbots' world. The novel has no center, no moral compass. When Mary turns away from the Drysdales of this world, she retreats into herself. But what kind of solution is this? Emulating her narcissistic sister will not bring this profoundly confused adolescent any improvement in virtue or strength of character. At the end of the book she is just as pathetic as she was before. Ditto her parents, her sister, and her friends.

...

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Judith N. Mitchell

Rosa Guy's Ruby hints at its quality through its title. It's a multi-faceted jewel of a novel, especially memorable for the unerring accuracy of its recreation of adolescent loneliness and commitment, and for the bitter-sweet quality of its resolution. The two girls who fall in love—Ruby, gentle, yielding, but with an inexorable impulse toward helping, and Daphne, bright, realistic, utterly pragmatic and more than occasionally unsympathetic, are complex, richly-detailed characters.

Bludgeoned by the loss of her mother and her father's absorption into his work, Ruby seeks in Daphne a solution to intolerable pain. Once she and Daphne have retreated, literally and figuratively to the sanctuary...

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