Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo incorporates Shange’s earlier novella Sassafras (1976). Apparently set during the Vietnam War era, it tells the story of Hilda Effania and her three daughters, African American natives of Charleston, South Carolina, descendants of a family of weavers who did piecework for a wealthy white family. Hilda Effania has conventional aspirations for her daughters, hoping that each will marry well and happily, preferably to a doctor’s son. She gives them the means to follow an upwardly mobile path: She sends Sassafrass to an exclusive northern prep school and Cypress to New York City to study ballet. She offers Indigo the opportunity to study the violin. Her daughters, however, are not content merely to follow the paths she suggests to them.
The daughters’ stories are told separately. Indigo’s story concerns her arrival at sexual maturity at the age of twelve and the resulting changes in her life. Her constant companions have been dolls she has made, and she sees herself as inhabiting a world of magical people and events. When she is on the verge of giving up her dolls, Uncle John the ragpicker, one of the mysterious figures she has befriended, gives her a violin. She becomes adept at improvising on the instrument, producing unconventional but compelling music. Initially resisting her mother’s desire that she learn to play properly, she ultimately does learn to play conventionally.
For a while, Indigo uses the magical power of her fiddle as part of a motorcycle gang, the Geechee Capitans. Her epiphany occurs when she is being chased during a misadventure through vaults where African slaves were once imprisoned. At that point, she renounces her flirtation with a life of violence: “Indigo knew her calling. The Colored had hurt enough already.” Ultimately, she goes to live with her aunt on a coastal Carolina island, where she learns the aunt’s trade of midwifery.
Despite her education, Sassafrass eschews college in favor...
(The entire section is 822 words.)