The Chinaberry Tree tells the story of Laurentine Strange and her cousin Melissa Paul while at the same time telling the story of a part of African American life largely unknown to the general public—the life of the black upper and middle classes. In the novel’s progression, the author unfolds Laurentine’s and Melissa’s struggles for happiness while at the same time recording the everyday happenings that make up black Red Brook society.
The novel begins with a portrait of Laurentine that shows how she has had to make a number of compromises concerning self-expression and happiness. Laurentine must make these compromises because of how Red Brook society has judged her, her mother Sarah, and Sarah’s sister Judy. The older Strange women have done the unthinkable and unconventional: Sarah has had an affair with the white and married Colonel Halloway, and Laurentine is a reminder to the community of this indiscretion. Moreover, Judy has had an affair with the married and respected black community member Sylvester Forten. Judy’s affair has essentially driven Forten’s wife crazy, and most members of Red Brook’s black society blame the Strange women.
As a child, Laurentine is tolerated by the community, but by the time she is eight years old and Judy has had her affair with Sylvester Forten, the community will no longer have anything to do with the Stranges. Fortunately, Sarah and Laurentine have been well provided for by Colonel Halloway, who has bought them a big house and left them some money. This self-sufficiency means the Strange women do not need to depend on the community. Yet other, nonmaterial, problems affect Laurentine. Throughout high school, she is not invited to parties and dances and does not have a steady beau. She walls herself into her home and has only the Chinaberry tree outside her window to anchor her dreams of romance. Other than daydreaming, Laurentine devotes most of her time to her dressmaking business.
Melissa’s entrance into the Strange household has a few pleasant and immediate consequences for the Strange women. First, Melissa does not know anything about her own parentage, so she thinks her mother was respectably married; she knows only that her father died shortly after she was born. She knows the history associated with...
(The entire section is 943 words.)