Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Rosa Guy’s novel fits into a tradition of naturalistic works that can be traced at least to Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) by American novelist and poet Stephen Crane. Like the Johnson family in Crane’s book, the Williamses are both victims and victimizers; trapped in an urban ghetto, they cope not by facing their dilemma squarely and honestly but by living according to value systems that either ignore or intensify their problems. Like Mrs. Johnson’s self-righteous response to the suicide of her prostitute daughter Maggie, for example, Mumma wraps a cloak of false Christianity about her to hide her basic self-interest.

In works of naturalism, all characters are essentially puppets prompted by internal and external manipulation. Thus, what engages readers’ attention is often not so much the characters themselves as these behavioral factors. Perhaps the parts of Bird at My Window where the characters seem most like flesh and blood are those that describe Wade’s adolescence.

Critics have long asserted that Rosa Guy’s depiction of the traumas of African American youth is her greatest strength. In this regard, Wade’s memories of his shared hopes with Rocky are among the most evocative sections in the book; they compare favorably to moments in the author’s celebrated Jackson-Cathy trilogy, which includes The Friends (1973), Ruby (1976), and Edith Jackson (1978).

It is also logical to draw comparisons between Bird at My Window and Rosa Guy’s second adult novel, A Measure of Time (1983). Both are big, sprawling books that cover decades of American life through the eyes of a central character. Unlike Wade Williams, Dorine Davis, the heroine of A Measure of Time, is a doer and a shaper of her own fortunes, and as such, she offers, despite her criminal activity, inspiration to those who feel that the individual self does matter.