Danzy Senna

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Kirkus Reviews (1 December 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of Caucasia, in Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1997, p. 1733.

[In the following review, the critic praises Senna's Caucasia for its effective evocation of being caught between two races.]

[Caucasia, is a]n ambitious debut novel that powerfully, if schematically, addresses the conditions of those living in the great racial no-man's-land—that is to say, the children of mixed marriage—who belong to both races but are often also rejected by both.

The author, a young Boston-raised writer, is herself the product of a mixed marriage, which gives her first fiction an authenticity that compensates for a plot that's often more a series of instructive set-pieces than a seamless narrative. Set in the late 1970s and early ′80s, the story takes place against the rise and decline of black power, as well as against radical activism, both of which are vividly detailed and form part of the subplot. Birdie, the narrator, is the younger daughter of Sandy, a Boston WASP, and black intellectual and Harvard-educated Deck. The two fell in love, married, and were soon the parents of two daughters: black Cole and "white" Birdie. Both Sandy and Deck were involved in antigovernment political movements, but Sandy increasingly became the more radical of the two. Birdie recalls how, as she and Cole grew older, the hurts and difficulties of being neither black or white accumulated: Cole was taunted for being white at her Afrocentric school, while the sisters' white grandmother favored Birdie at Cole's expense. And when their parents separated, and Deck went off to Brazil in search of a color-blind society, he took Cole with him. Left behind with her mother, Birdie describes the lonely years spent with Sandy on the run from the FBI. She also recollects her schooldays with bigoted New Hampshire whites and how, as a teenager, she finally escaped from Sandy and found a bittersweet reunion with Deck and Cole.

An accomplished novel of issues that doesn't offer any easy solutions but dies poignantly evoke the pain and paradox of those caught in the racial crossfire.

Ellen Flexman (review date January 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of Caucasia, in Library Journal, January, 1988, p. 145.

[In the following review, Flexman discusses the racial divide explored in Senna's Caucasia.]

Senna's first novel[, Caucasia,] explores life in the middle of America's racial chasm through the eyes of a biracial girl who must struggle for acceptance from blacks and whites alike. Birdie and Cole are the daughters of a white mother and an African-American father whose marriage is disintegrating. When their activist mother must flee from the police, the girls are split between their parents: Cole goes with her father because she looks black, Birdie with her mother because she could pass for white. Living in a small town and forced to keep her family, her past, and her race a secret, Birdie spies upon racism in all its forms, from the overt comments of the town locals to the hypocrisy of the wealthy liberals. Senna combines a powerful coming-of-age tale with a young girl's search for identity and family amid a sea of racial stereotypes and cultural ideas of beauty….

Donna Seaman (review date 15 February 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of Caucasia, in Booklist, February 15, 1998, p. 985.

[In the following review, Seaman praises Senna's Caucasia as "thematically and dramatically rich."]

Senna's debut novel [Caucasia ] is as thematically and dramatically rich as fiction can be, infused, as it is, with emotional truth. Like her strong-minded young narrator, Birdie, Senna is the daughter of a black father and a white mother, and the lighter-skinned of two sisters, and she writes about race, identity, heritage, and loyalty with...

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wrenching poignancy. Birdie and her sister, Cole, are close as only sister can get, but they are forced apart when their daring activist mother, a Boston Brahmin, goes underground after a revolutionary scheme misfires. She takes the lighter of the two girls, Birdie, as cover and hits the road, severing all ties with the past. They finally settle down in a small New Hampshire town where Birdie endures the thoughtless racism of her schoolmates until her longing for her sister and father, and for acknowledgment of her mixed blood, induces her to hit the road once again, this time as a runaway. As Senna charts Birdie's odyssey and rekindles the fires of the 1960s, she poses tough questions about integration, intermarriage, and the status of mixed-race children. This courageous and necessary tale about the color of skin and the variations of love is full of sorrow, both personal and societal, and much magic and humor.

Laura Shapiro (review date 16 February 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of Caucasia, in Newsweek, Vol. 131, No. 7, February 16, 1998, p. 71.

[In the following review, Shapiro lauds Senna's debut novel, Caucasia.]

Long after you finish the book, the visual conundrums woven through Danzy Senna's remarkable first novel, Caucasia, cling to your memory. There's Birdie, who takes after her mother's white, New England side of the family—light skin, straight hair. There's her big sister, Cole, who takes after their father, a radical black intellectual. It's the early '70s, and black-power politics divide their parents, who divide the sisters: Cole disappears with their father, and Birdie goes underground with their mother.

Caucasia is chiefly Birdie's story, and her struggles to fit in anywhere, to pass as anything, are vivid. At her Afrocentric elementary school she longs for cornrows; when she and her mother settle down in a small New Hampshire town she learns to wear tight jeans, skinny tops and layers of makeup. But she's always the outsider looking in, a spy even in her own family. Senna, herself the more fair-skinned daughter of a biracial couple, knows racial politics first-hand, but she's more interested in their real-life consequences. She tells this coming-of-age tale with impressive beauty and power.

Lise Funderberg (March 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of Caucasia, in Essence, Vol. 28, No. 11, March, 1998, p. 66.

[In the following review, Funderberg praises the narrative voice of Senna's Caucasia.]

This month two first-time novelists view life through the prism of the not-so-tragic mulatto. First, Danzy Senna makes a stunning debut with Caucasia. In her engrossing tale, two sisters growing up in Boston are so close that they share a secret language, Elemeno, named after their favorite letters in the alphabet. But they don't share skin color or hair texture, and so when their parents' interracial marriage breaks up, Birdie, the light one, goes with their White mother; Cole, the older, darker sister, goes with their Black father. Senna finds a perfect-pitch voice for Birdie that blends innocence, wry humor and straight-out pain. The second book, Lady Moses, by Lucinda Roy, is the epic tale of Jacinta Louise Buttercup Moses, the London-raised daughter of a White English mother and an African father. This is an ambitious first novel, and the themes of family, parenting, race, identity, artistry and love are occasionally given short shrift. But Roy does hit some moments dead-on. As different as Caucasia and Lady Moses may be in execution, they are similarly bold in their consideration of the intersecting boundary lines of race and love.

Elizabeth Schmidt (review date 15 March 1998)

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SOURCE: "Soul Mates." in New York Times Book Review, March 15, 1998, p. 22.

[In the following review, Schmidt discusses Birdie's struggle for identity and acceptance in Senna's Caucasia.]

Early on in Danzy Senna's absorbing debut novel, [Caucasia,] her 7-year-old heroine, Birdie Lee, enjoys a rare day alone with her absent-minded professor of a father. They spend the afternoon in the Boston Public Garden, buying a T-shirt for Birdie, riding the swan boat and eating hog dogs before settling on the grass to read the Sunday paper. At one point, Birdie notices an older, well-dressed white couple walking a miniature terrier. They scowl at her and point, but Birdie shrugs them off and lays her head on her father's stomach to read the funnies. A few minutes later, she and her father are interrupted by the couple and two policemen, one of whom questions Birdie: "You can tell us, kiddie. He can't hurt you here. You're safe now. Did the man touch you funny?" The policemen are suspicious because Birdie looks white, like her mother, and her father is black, and because Boston in the mid-70s, when the novel begins, is on the verge of race riots and political turmoil.

It's telling that Birdie's lingering dismay over this incident has more to do with the separation she feels from her older sister, Cole, who has stayed home with a fever, than with her furious and humiliated father's silence on the way home. She tries to imagine how Cole, her soul mate, protector and all-around idol, would have treated the cops, but then realizes that Cole, who is black and looks it, would never have been in the situation in the first place. Throughout the novel, Senna superbly illustrates the emotional toll that politics and race take on one especially gutsy young girl's development as she makes her way through the parallel limbos between black and white and between girl and young woman.

Birdie almost always tries to measure this development in relation to Cole, as the book's opening makes clear: "Before I ever saw myself, I saw my sister. When I was still too small for mirrors, I saw her as the reflection that proved my own existence." The differences Birdie is forced to recognize between herself and Cole threaten both a perfect childhood bond and, much more perilously, her evolving sense of self.

The girls' bookish parents, who met over a reference in Camus's diary, separate early in the novel, thanks largely to their conflicting political styles: Sandy, their mother, whose Cambridge roots go back to Cotton Mather, is a political activist who has had it with the intellectual detachment of their father, Deck. Deck's newfound black pride draws him to a black suburb, to "find me a strong black woman. A sistah." The girls, meanwhile, are left to navigate the shoals of their interracial existence more or less on their own. Eventually, as the first section of the novel comes to a conclusion, Deck and his new girlfriend take off with Cole for Brazil, where he hopes to find true racial equality; and the increasingly paranoid Sandy, who suspects that the F.B.I. is after her, flees with Birdie to the country.

"You've got a lot of choices, babe. You can be anything," Sandy tells Birdie as they hatch their new identities. "Puerto Rican. Sicilian, Pakistani, Greek. I mean, anything, really…. And, of course, you could always be Jewish. What do you think?" Sandy and Birdie Lee become Sheila and Jesse Goldman, widow and daughter of a dead Jewish academic. For the next four years (and the middle third of the book) they drift through what Birdie calls Caucasia, a world of cheap motels and communes, before settling in a small New Hampshire town, where Birdie begins school as Jesse Goldman. In this ultrawhite world of feathered hair and blue eye shadow, Birdie, who is now 12, awakens to "the pleasure of sitting around a cafeteria table with a huddle of gossipy girls, popping french fries in my mouth and gabbing about who was who, what was what."

But fitting in comes at great cost. Birdie is ripped apart by the particular conflicts passing brings out: she wants simultaneously to belong to a group and to stay true to who she is and where she came from, the only way, as she sees it, to reconnect with Cole and everything their connection symbolizes. The book's last section describes Birdie's heroic search for Cole. She is terrified that losing the "state of incompletion" she felt when she drifted from place to place means losing the ability to "go back to what we had left behind." Few of us, of course, aren't haunted now and again by the pull to "go back." Senna gives new meaning to the twin universal desires for a lost childhood and a new adult self by recounting Birdie's struggle to become someone when she can look and act like anyone.

Susie Linfield (review date 25 March 1998)

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SOURCE: "Writing About More Than Listless Youth," in Los Angeles Times, March 25, 1998, p. E3.

[In the following review, Linfield lauds Senna's Caucasia for its realistic and complex portrayal of racial identity in America.]

A novelist I know asked what I'd been reading lately. Caucasia, I answered. He looked displeased, as if he'd suddenly eaten something sour. "It's OK—but I like perfectly crafted sentences," he said. "Well," said I, "those are nice. But I like novels that are about something."

Danzy Senna, the 28-year-old author of Caucasia, has written a book that is not always perfectly crafted, but it is about many things, and important ones too. If you have tired of first novels in which the listless youth of America have listless sex, listen to listless music and listlessly consume junk food, Caucasia should interest you.

"Before I ever saw myself, I saw my sister," the novel begins. It is narrated by Birdie Lee, a young girl whose life revolves around her beloved older sister, Cole. The two are so close they communicate in their own secret language, Elemeno. But they don't look close to the outside world; in fact, they are regarded as an uncomfortable oddity. Birdie and Cole are the daughters of Sandy, a tough blond blue-blood ("Her interests were literature, existentialism, and the Holocaust") and Deck, a cynical black intellectual who considers white liberals "a disease." Through some genetic roll of the dice, Birdie looks as white as her mother, and Cole looks as black as her dad—a fact that will, however unfairly, determine the sisters' destinies and their parents' affections.

The place is Boston, the time the mid-'70s. Sandy and Deck are caught up in the radical politics of the period, including their city's vicious struggles over busing. To Birdie, though, "this thing called Black Power" is a mystery: "All I knew of it was that my father agreed with it, my mother and her friends supported it, and it had something to do with the length and consistency of my father's hair."

Two events smash the girls' world. First, their parents' always-volatile relationship finally explodes, and Deck and Sandy separate ("They felt the loss before it happened, and their love was defined by that loss," Birdie observes). Then Sandy becomes involved in some nebulous revolutionary activity—something dangerous involving guns—that goes terribly wrong, and Sandy and Deck decide that Boston is no longer safe. Deck takes 12-year-old Cole (who looks, after all, like "his" daughter and is in fact his favorite) and flees to Brazil; Sandy takes 9-year-old Birdie and disappears.

With new, phony identities—Birdie passes as a while Jewish girl named Jesse Goldman—mother and daughter travel underground for four years, following a sad route of "zigzag chaos" until they settle in a small New Hampshire town. "In those years, I felt myself to be incomplete—a gray blur, a body in motion, forever galloping toward completion—half a girl, half-caste, half-mast, and half-baked, not quite ready for consumption," Birdie recalls.

And in those years, Birdie learns many useful things: to lie, to spy, to betray, to deceive, to dissemble, to fade, to hide. "Strange as it may sound, there was a safety in this pantomime," she explains. "The less I behaved like myself, the more I could believe this was still a game." But she never learns to stop missing Cole. And throughout her travels, she carries her box of "negrobilia," filled with tenderly preserved artifacts from her former life with her forever lost, miscegenated family.

It is a curiosity of recent American fiction that so few novels address race in ways that arc moving, complex, realistic or lucid—or, for that matter, address it at all. Caucasia is an exception. It is not a feel-good book about the brotherhood of man; it explores both the centrality, and the lunacy, of racial identity in America. And it does so through the eyes of Birdie Lee, a character as peculiar, particular, believable and compelling as any you are likely to encounter.

Margo Jefferson (review date 4 May 1998)

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SOURCE: "Seeing Race as a Costume That Everyone Wears," in New York Times Book Review, May 4, 1998, p. E2.

[In the following review, Jefferson asserts that Senna's Caucasia is a moving novel which explores fully the implications of being racially or culturally mixed in America.]

When I was a child in the 1950s, you weren't supposed to use the word "mulatto." You only heard or overheard adults using it with eyebrows raised and quotation marks implied. It was considered backward: meant to demean when used by whites and, when used by your own, a sign that you were just a little too proud of your white blood. It would have been rude to use it around mulatto playmates, and it wasn't always clear who was the child of a Negro and a Caucasian and who was the child of a brown-skinned and a fair-skinned Negro.

You didn't talk about relatives who were passing for white either. Parents told you about them when you had reached a certain age, or when they had no choice, as when one retired, so to speak, and moved back to Negroland.

When the time came to talk about miscegenation and passing, you were taught that if you looked in any way like a Negro or acknowledged any smattering of Negro blood, you were a Negro. White society had decreed it by law and by convention, and you would pay if you acted otherwise.

These memories were set in motion by Caucasia, a haunting and deeply intelligent first novel by Danzy Senna. Caucasia takes these words, beliefs and laws, puts them in the 1970s and 80s, where there is more room for open battle, and lets them have at one another until they He scattered around the stage of American life like corpses in a revenge tragedy.

But Caucasia isn't tragedy. (It is excruciating often enough, but coolly amused, too.) From the 19th century through the early 20th, most novels with mulattoes as their central characters ended in death, devastation or both. (Four of many: Charles W. Chestnut's House Behind the Cedars, Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson, William Faulkner's Light in August and Nella Larsen's Passing. Hardly surprising either, since history, law and myth were doing their best to secure this end.)

Birdie, the narrator of Caucasia, is told by her father that mulattoes are the human equivalents of the canaries that coal miners took into the mines to gauge how poisonous the air was: if the birds sickened and died, they had their answer. So it is with poisonous race relations, he says, adding, "See, my guess is that you're the first generation of canaries to survive, a little injured, perhaps, but alive."

Race is hard to think, talk or write about. No, that's not true at all. It is hard to think, talk or write about with undefensive clarity and noncloying intimacy, partly because it can play so many parts in so many dramas. Here, it is the ruling force; there, it is a minor but potent factor; sometimes it is a diversionary tactic leading us away from other powerful claims, like class, sex and family life, right back into the clichés and obsessions we began with (but with a fresh layer of dogma or sanctimony).

Birdie and her elder sister, Cole, are the daughters of a black intellectually radical father, Deck Lee, and a white politically radical mother living in Boston, Sandra. They met when he was a student of her father's at Harvard. Sandra's ancestors are Mathers and Lodges. Deck says only that his mother was born in Louisiana, studied Russian at an Alabama college and came to Boston alone with her copy of Anna Karenina.

When Caucasia begins, Deck and Sandra's marriage is going bad. Their temperaments are mismatched, and they are quarreling, over political ends and means. They will probably divorce, Cole remarks; everyone's parents do. The Lees are living in a Boston that can euphemistically be described as "racially troubled": they are in the grip of race as a social force, and it does permeate their lives. But they are just as much in the grip of an angry couple's drive to turn everything they know about each other into a weapon of humiliation.

"You belong in the Square, just where I found you. Sandy, no matter how much you try to fight it. You're a Harvard girl at heart." He paused to light up a cigarette, then continued, changing the tone of his voice slightly: "And I need to go to Roxbury. Find me a strong black woman. A sistah…."

I saw my mother clench her fist around the object in her hand. She forced a harsh sound in her throat, something like a laugh. "Oh my God. Since when do you talk that way. 'A sistah.' Don't blacken your speech around me. I know where you come from. You can't fool me."

When Sandra's political work puts her in danger of being arrested, the family splits up along racial and geographical lines. The brown-skinned Cole goes with Deck to Brazil, where he hopes blacks live more freely. The fair-skinned Birdie goes underground with Sandra, traveling from motels to women's communes, settling in New Hampshire and passing (as a concession to Birdie's faintly Levantine or Mediterranean looks) as the widow and daughter of a Jewish professor.

Birdie tells the story, beginning with her memories of lying in bed with Cole, speaking a language they had made up and called Elemeno. (But it wasn't only a language; it was a land whose inhabitants could change color and shape, be visible or invisible at will.)

Then came the various disruptions of the non-Elemeno world. Birdie in the park with her father, being stopped by policemen and asked if he is "touching her funny." Cole being virtually ignored whenever she goes to visit her Brahmin grandmother with Sandra and Birdie. Cole flourishing at the all-black school they both go to, while Birdie has to work overtime to be accepted. And after learning the bare rudiments of how to be a hip black city girl, having to scotch it all and become a cool white girl in small-town New Hampshire. No more double Dutch, no more curling irons, no more Roberta Flack or Earth, Wind and Fire; lots of frosted lipstick, lots of blue eyeshadow, lots of Kim Carnes and Hall and Oates.

What Ms. Senna gets so painfully well is how the standard-issue cruelties of adolescence (like being the new kid trying to win acceptance) are revitalized when they encounter race. Birdie was the new girl in town. She worked hard to be accepted, and she pulled it off. So when two blacks arrive at her all-white high school and she has to watch them tread a path of casual ingratiation and stoic humiliation (nothing like those jokes in fake black accents), she cracks and runs away to find her father and sister.

But when Birdie finds Deck and says she has been passing, he declares there is no such thing. Race is a construct, a costume we all wear: "You just switched yours at some point." And he's right, Cole admits, but it still exists. "They say you don't have to choose," Birdie adds wearily, "but the thing is, you do. Because there are consequences if you don't."

"Cole shrugged, 'Yeah, and there are consequences if you do.'"

The traditional tragic mulatto has a doomed interracial love affair at its center, but here the lovers are sisters. It is Cole whom Birdie needs most (a need that goes unrequited for most of the novel); her need is based on a primal memory. She recalls: "Before I ever saw myself, I saw my sister. When I was too small for mirrors, I saw her as the reflection that proved my own existence. Back then, I was content to see only Cole, three years older than me, and imagine that her face—cinnamon-skinned, curly-haired, serious—was my own."

Birdie and Cole have the right to everything but invisibility and simplicity. Which is why Caucasia moved me so. With its tone of passionate irony and dispassionate melancholy, it left nothing unexamined and made nothing easy.

Mulattoes aren't only a gauge of race relations, they are a gauge of the cultural complexities you choose—or choose not—to live with. You don't have to have parents of contrasting races to be a cultural mulatto. You have to stand apart from your heritage, study the forces (natural and unnatural) that made it, then choose to become part of whatever else stirs and compels you, however foreign or distant. You may start out doing it, as Birdie says, because you have to. But in the end, do it because you want to.

June Unjoo Yang (review date Spring 1998)

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SOURCE: "Watching the Canary." in Hungry Mind Review, No. 45, Spring, 1998, p. 34.

[In the following review, Yang points out certain flaws in Senna's Caucasia, including sounding too much like a race treatise and problems with time.]

In Danzy Senna's debut novel, Caucasia, a father compares the status of his biracial daughter to that of canaries used by coal miners to test the air quality underground: "They would bring a canary in with them, and if it grew sick and died, they knew the air was bad and that eventually everyone else would be poisoned by the fumes. My father said that likewise, mulattos had historically been the gauge of how poisonous American race relations were. The fate of the mulatto in history and in literature, he said, will manifest the symptoms that will eventually infect the rest of the nation."

No need to check that valentine from Daddy to his baby girl for its Hallmark label. Then again, it's a pretty handy touchstone for assessing the peculiar challenges that mixed-race identity poses to current race discourse. In the absence of legislative prohibitions on miscegenation, what remains is a legacy of social discomfort with the transgression of racial boundaries. Equated with such transgressions, mixed-race individuals are still too often marginalized by their respective communities.

The implicit problem seems to me a failure of imagination, an unwillingness to conceive of racial categories and groupings as permeable to change. Well beyond the ethnic classification of "other" on Census Bureau forms, there's a long tradition of depicting mixed-race individuals as innately unassimilable: mongrels or exotics, race traitors or interesting hybrids, proof of genocidal imperatives or children of a rainbow tribe, depending on which daytime talk show you happen to be watching. Hoariest of all is the tragic mulatto heroine, popping up in books like Nella Larsen's 1929 novel, Passing, and films like Imitation of Life (1934, remade in 1959) and Pinky (1949), which spawned remake after weepy remake. Of curse the mulatto heroine is supposed to be tragic because she doesn't belong, no matter how hard she tries; when she takes a shot at passing for white in mainstream society, she invariably suffers the consequences and destroys everybody around her, to boot.

Fully cognizant of these images, Danzy Senna creates a first-person biracial narrator named Birdie Lee who is arguably one of the two sanest characters in Caucasia. The other is Cole, Birdie's older sister, and the novel traces the vicissitudes of their relationship and separation over a span of several years (1975–82). The novel also features Cole and Birdie's father, Deck, a black academic, and mother, Sandy, a white activist, who meet in Harvard Square circa 1963. Their attraction is instant, but their union fleeting: in the novel's first chapter, an eight-year-old Birdie reports on her parents' constant sniping over race and class differences that become irreconcilable. When Deck discloses his plans to leave for Roxbury, a predominantly black section of Boston, to "find me a strong black woman. A sistah. No more of this crazy white-girl shit," Sandy's contempt is obvious. "Oh my God," she retorts. "Since when do you talk that way? 'A sistah.' Don't blacken your speech around me. I know where you come from. You can't fool me."

The two little girls, lighter-skinned Birdie and darker-skinned Cole, strengthen their bond with a private language they call "Elemeno" and attend a Black Power school together. At the school, called Nkrumah, Birdie grows conscious of color distinctions when other kids pick on her for not "looking" black, while Cole realizes increasingly that her white mother is unequipped to anticipate ashy knees and elbows or to style black hair. "Mum just doesn't know how to handle raising a black child," Cole tells her father, who in turn seems to focus his energies on grilling Cole about his race theories while neglecting Birdie during his weekend visits. He also acquires a black girlfriend whose disdain for Birdie becomes a further source of tension.

Through this network of shifting family allegiances and divisions along color lines, Cole and Birdie watch over each other until Sandy's political activities catch up to them. Convinced that she's the target of FBI surveillance, Sandy opts for the fugitive life with Birdie in tow. To bring Cole along would make them too conspicuous, the reasoning goes, but Birdie is light enough to pass. So Sandy reinvents herself as the widow of a Jewish professor, Birdie as their daughter, and they head for a women's commune in upstate New York before settling in small-town New Hampshire. Cole, meanwhile, travels with Deck and his girlfriend to Brazil in search of racial utopias, and the sisters are torn apart. Then the second two-thirds of the novel begins.

If that sounds awfully crowded and high-concept, which it is, Senna deserves credit for imbuing her spirited and not-at-all-tragic narrator with a wry intelligence that enables her to explore issues of biracial identity in an accessible fashion. Working within the novel's episodic structure, Senna has a knack for plumping up scenes of political significance with attention to small gestures and details that evoke an immediate emotional response. For instance, Sandy cautions Birdie about child molesters in the largely black neighborhood of Roxbury, but doesn't seem fearful for Cole. Birdie notices the discrepancy: "It struck me as odd that my mother hadn't warned Cole not to go to the park, just me. 'There are perverts, crazies, dirty old men, and they want little girls like you.' Girls like you. When [Mum] was gone, Cole looked up from her Jet magazine and watched me from behind her braids, which hung like bars across her face, dividing her features into sections." This is a lovely description, affecting because it hints at the lesser value of black girls versus white or light-skinned girls, as well as the unspoken hurts and biases in Cole and Sandy's relationship, without verging into didacticism.

At other times, Caucasia sounds a little like one of Deck's race treatises, and he certainly gets to talk a lot in this novel, whether in his own voice or through Birdie's recollection. It's not that I fundamentally disagree with Deck's appraisals, or that I object to the humor of observations like Sandy and Birdie's list of liberal Wasp behavior. (My personal favorite: "A real Wasp drinks everything out of a gin tumbler, never out of a wine glass.") But Senna runs the risk of sounding shrill and thereby undermining a frank and often thought-provoking meditation on race and identity.

There are other flaws in Caucasia, particularly around the management of time, which doesn't flow right from section to section. Senna has a habit of announcing the date when she starts a new portion of her narrative, and the references to years passing aren't always credible. The most salient example is the women's commune period, remembered in snippets by Birdie and sketched in the broadest of strokes: a Harley-riding Australian lover for Sandy, moonlit skinny-dipping sessions, battered wives escaping their murderous ex-husbands. All that's missing is the collectively shared copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves and a heaping helping of burnt tempeh loaf—or maybe someone modeled on Valerie Solanas, author of the infamous "SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto," whose gun-toting badass presence might have livened things up.

At her best, however, Senna, is adept at handling dialogue and allusions to pop culture—music, television, snack foods, and clothing most of all. They're allusions that make us aware, with Birdie, of the social codes espoused by various characters and communities that she meets and inevitably abandons. When Birdie decides she has to track down her sister, the most important community she ever had, we've traveled far enough with her to see the urgency of her mission. It's a testament to Senna's fictional gifts that we understand and root for Birdie the whole way through.

Frances Reiher (review date September 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of Caucasia, in School Library Journal, September, 1998, pp. 230-31.

[In the following review, Reiher briefly describes the obstacles that Birdie, the adolescent narrator of Senna's Caucasia, faces as she grows up.]

The time is the 1970s, the place is Boston, and the story[, Caucasia,] is of a biracial marriage and the two little girls born of it. Cole, the first child, preferred by both parents, is beautifully black like her father. Birdie, the narrator, is light enough to pass as white. The wife is a "bleeding heart liberal" who has involved herself in civil rights causes against the wishes of her intellectual husband. Finally, the marriage ruptures. A general breakdown ensues when a gun-running political activity precipitates the need for the family to disappear. Cole is taken off to Brazil with her father to begin a new life in a black environment more open to people of color. Birdie is caught up in a series of wrenching deprivals when her mother insists on the need to go underground. There is a change of location, name, appearance, and in Birdie's case, a change of race; she is to pass as white. Money shortages, a complete lack of stability, the loss of a sister almost a twin, a feeling of displacement, the strains of adjustment, no sense of community or relationship, and the growing suspicion that her mother is psychotic make for disturbing adolescent years. Throughout, Birdie keeps alive her need to connect with her father and sister, and faces the knowledge that the liability of her sister's blackness to her mother and her own unwelcome whiteness to her father has brought the family to this sorry situation. It is her courage, her optimism, and her inherent loyalty that brings about a satisfying reunion for the sisters.