What is the function of Laura Deen in Strange Fruit by Lilian Smith?

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Laura Deen is Tracy's sister who is secretly in love with a woman. Her function in the novel Strange Fruit is to highlight the problems that people had at the time the novel was written with different types of forbidden love. Laura's mother wants her to give up her lesbian...

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Laura Deen is Tracy's sister who is secretly in love with a woman. Her function in the novel Strange Fruit is to highlight the problems that people had at the time the novel was written with different types of forbidden love. Laura's mother wants her to give up her lesbian lover, as lesbianism was not accepted at the time--just as the interracial relationship at the center of the novel between Tracy and Nonnie Anderson, a light-skinned black woman, was not.

By including Laura in the novel, the author, Lillian Smith, drew a parallel between interracial relationships and gay or lesbian relationships, as both types of relationships were taboo. In addition, the author put her own experience into the novel, as she was a lesbian with a closeted relationship with a woman. Laura Deen is Smith's way to express her own secrets in the novel and to connect herself to the problems of the main characters, who hide their interracial relationship.

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Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith is the story of the doomed love affair between Nonnie Anderson, a recent African-American college graduate, and Tracy Deen, the white son of one of the area's most influential families. Once the love affair and Nonnie's subsequent pregnancy becomes public knowledge, all hell breaks loose in the small town of Maxwell. Before the events of the novel turn truly tragic, we meet Laura Deen, Tracy's older sister. Much to their mother Alma's consternation, Laura is completely uninterested in dating young men. When confronted with her daughter Laura's burgeoning lesbianism, Alma cruelly upbraids Laura:

“A man, a boy—you could understand men being dirty like that—men seemed made that way. But your own daughter . . .”

Although Laura is in love with an older woman, she knows that society will never allow her to be in an open relationship. Many speculate that the character of Laura is actually a tip of the hat from Smith to her longtime partner, Paula Snelling, with whom she had to hide a life-long relationship.

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Laura Deen, from Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith, is Tracy Deen's older sister. In 1920s Massachusetts Nonnie Anderson, an educated black woman who, despite being a college graduate is working as a maid  and Tracy Deen, a white man, a college drop-out and the son of the town's doctor, have apparently fallen in love after Tracy's return from World War I. As children, Tracy had stopped some white youths from attacking her and a friendship subsequently developed.

Nonnie is pregnant with his child but he cannot stand up to the pressure from the community and will marry a local white girl, as deigned by his parents and Nonnie is encouraged to marry a black man. Tracy even goes as far as paying "Big Henry" to marry Nonnie whom she dislikes immensely. There will be disastrous consequences as Nonnie's brother overhears Tracy's plan.

Laura has her own secret but she is less passive than her brother and, although she will not make her relationship public, she does not intend to hide her feelings. She cannot make her mother understand why she likes "that type of woman" and her function in the novel, other than meeting a personal need of Lillian Smith, who herself kept a homosexual relationship a secret, is to reveal the complexity of relationships and how prejudice is very far-reaching. Feelings about homosexuality, certainly in its time period, were confused and misunderstood and therefore Laura gives the story an added dimension. There are many tragic stories of love and Laura gives the reader a broader outlook. Many are so ready to criticize and pass judgment, believing that inter-racial relationships are taboo and Laura's character upsets their bias when those same judgmental characters have different issues to consider and can no longer blame race as a defining factor.

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