The Stories

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

At the Bottom of the River is a series of ten short, impressionistic pieces that might almost be better called “prose pieces” rather than stories. Though the stories develop and have plots, they do not follow most narrative conventions. They do, however, form a tightly connected unit, in that at the center of each tale is the pain of separation of a daughter from her mother.

Although At the Bottom of the River resists easy categorization, categories are helpful in understanding it. To an extent, the pieces in this book can be read successfully as poetry in that, as in poetry, the use of realistic detail is suggestive rather than extensive. For the most part, the stories take place within the landscape of the narrator’s mind, and the external “real” world is only an occasional focus. Then, too, the language has the compact beauty and grace of lyric poetry, and the prose is sensitive to the rhythms and sounds of language. As in poetry, readers must be alert to subtle shades of meaning in the language and images of the text. In another sense, however, because the thematic content of the book is so carefully unified, a reader might want to call it a novel. Because the form and appearance on the page is most like that of a collection of short stories, however, and because its novelistic and poetic aspects are aspects of short stories as well, the work is usually classified as a collection of short fiction.

The first story in the collection is “Girl,” and most of it is a monologue of instructions from a mother to a daughter, with the daughter’s two attempts to reply indicated by italics; these replies are largely ignored by the mother. Implicitly, the mother’s directions are directions for becoming a young lady and a proper wife, but they are given to a girl who is still too young to appreciate or fully understand them, especially because they contain apparent contradictions. The mother advises her daughter not to appear too sexually provocative, but also tells her how to smile at men so they will not ignore her. Similarly, the mother advises the daughter on how to love a man—but then remarks that, if the suggestions do not work, “don’t feel too bad about giving up.” The mother advises her daughter not to sing “benna,” folk songs that draw on African tradition, on Sundays, implying that her Christian heritage must be privileged over her African heritage. On the other hand, the mother also gives her daughter herbal and medicinal advice that derive from African tradition. A grown woman might be able to reconcile such apparent conflict, but the young girl is clearly overwhelmed. Further, there is reason to doubt the mother’s maturity; the advice she gives her daughter includes information on how to spit in the air and how to play marbles. When the daughter tries to protest that she does not do the things her mother thinks she does, it begins to seem likely that the mother is projecting her own conflicts onto her daughter without attempting to understand the girl.

Like “Girl,” many of the stories in this collection are remarkable for their ability to suggest feelings and states of mind from childhood. In “Wingless,” the narrator identifies herself with young wingless insects, such as caterpillars that have not become butterflies. The story begins with a school scene of children reading together but then goes into the mind of the young narrator, who is imagining what type of woman she will be. Like most of the stories in this collection, “Wingless” uses an imaginary landscape of memory and desire; the writer is trying to express the desires for womanhood as felt by a child. The red woman, who...

(The entire section is 1504 words.)