Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582
The Dark Child tells the story of the author’s youth. Yet, the style, structure, and purpose of the book cause it to be classified as a novel as well as an autobiography; Camara Laye has molded his materials in such a way that it is not he, himself, who emerges from the book but rather a representative man. In this way, The Dark Child is similar to other “shaped” autobiographies such as Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That (1929), Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), and even D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913).
Laye’s account is structured through a dozen chapters, each evoking a particularly meaningful and poignant memory. The first chapters show Laye as a small child, playing about his father’s hut, where he observes his father caressing and talking to a small snake. His mother tells him that this snake is the guiding spirit of his father’s people; it gives his father knowledge and the special skills which make him a highly praised, prosperous goldsmith. His father tries to share this same knowledge with the child, but both father and son sense that the transference will never occur, that the son’s destiny lies elsewhere.
Another part of Laye’s heritage is related in the next two chapters, as the child visits his maternal relatives in the village of Tindican. Here, he participates in the rice harvest. The narrator captures the many rituals associated with the harvest as thoroughly as he detailed the ritualistic aspects of his father’s trade. Above all, he recalls the joy of the participants in these rituals. Laye’s artistry works to create a sense of foreshadowing here, as, amid joy there are notes of sorrow or potential sorrow. Laye’s village, Kouroussa, is much larger than Tindican. Thus, in Tindican, he is regarded as a “town boy.” He is dressed differently and is not permitted to perform labor. Though everyone is kind and loving, he is different, set apart. This difference and his slight uneasiness about it foreshadow the greater alienation he is preparing to undergo as the book ends.
As the boy grows older, he attends schools, Muslim and then French. Although he values his religious and intellectual education, he details more fully the particularly African education he receives through undergoing rites of manhood, including circumcision. Through this ritual, he and his friends become reborn as men. Laye describes the many rituals surrounding this event and makes clear the powerful bonding that results. He views the experience not simply as a chance to show courage or gain the prerogatives of adulthood; rather, the experience is valued because it makes him truly at one with his people. For the expatriate, this aspect of the memory is most powerful.
To further his education, Laye now travels to Guinea’s capital, the coastal city of Conakry, four hundred miles from home. Equipped with magic elixirs and talismans, he makes the journey successfully, settles in with relatives, and eventually falls into a childlike love affair with a girl named Marie. After a few false starts at school, he is graduated at the top of his class and is given an opportunity to study in France. He accepts, then faces the painful task of telling his parents. His father and finally his mother agree to his going, and the novel ends as he sits on the airplane with a map of Paris in his hand, grieving but looking forward.