Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1612
Jacqueline Woodson’s young adult novel Feathers (2007) begins on January 6, 1971, in the sixth-grade classroom of an African-American school. The sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Johnson, has recently read her students the Emily Dickinson poem “Hope is the thing with feathers,” and the novel’s protagonist, Frannie, is struck by the poem’s message of hope “getting inside you and never stopping.” On January 6, however, an unusual event occurs in Frannie’s classroom: a white boy joins the class. He is pale, skinny, and tall, with long curly hair, and Frannie immediately notices the unusually thoughtful and perceptive expression on his face.
Some of the other sixth graders, however, are not so pleased with the new white boy’s presence. Trevor, the class bully, tells the boy that “pale-faces” do not belong in this school and he should get his “white butt” back on the other side of the highway—the highway being the unofficial dividing line between the white and black sections of Frannie’s town. The boy responds by saying Trevor is just as pale as he is and calling him “brother.” Frannie reveals that Trevor is in fact very light-skinned and blue-eyed, and according to local rumors, his father is white.
At lunch that day, Frannie, her best friend Samantha, and a stuck-up girl named Maribel Tanks discuss the new white boy. Maribel thinks the boy does not belong in their school, while Samantha says if he ended up here, this is where he should be. Frannie, meanwhile, watches the white boy sitting alone and feels sadness “creep up” on her.
When Trevor and a few other sixth-grade boys confront the white boy, he refuses to speak to them, and they ask if he is deaf and pretend to speak to him in sign language. He signs back, “No, I’m not deaf,” and Frannie understands him because her brother Sean is deaf and she speaks sign language with him. After signing, the boy looks over at Frannie as if he knows she is watching him. Then Trevor says the boy looks like Jesus and begins to call him “Jesus Boy.”
Soon after this incident, Trevor is absent from school for a few days because he tried to jump from a swing to a high fence, missed it, and broke his arm. Meanwhile, the white boy tells Ms. Johnson that he would like to go by the name Jesus—everyone calls him that, and he likes it. Another boy in their class, Rayray, protests, insisting that calling his classmate Jesus is wrong because Jesus was not human and he was not white—he was “spirit-colored,” as Rayray explains it. Rayray then adds that if the boy were really the son of God, he would probably go to a private school. As the conversation continues, Jesus starts crying. He tells the class that he used to live on the other side of the highway, but he did not feel he belonged there, and his father told him people would be nicer here.
After school that day, Samantha tells Frannie she suspects that “Jesus Boy” really is Jesus. Samantha points out that the Bible says, “Jesus wept,” just as Jesus Boy did that day, and she adds that just like Jesus Boy, the real Jesus wandered the earth, searching for a place where he would be accepted. While Frannie is respectful of Samantha’s opinion, Frannie herself cannot believe that Jesus Boy is the true son of God. As Frannie explains, their difference of opinion is rooted in their respective religious backgrounds: Samantha’s father is a preacher at One People Baptist, a “fire-and-brimstone” church where one is either holy and headed for heaven, or sentenced to burn in eternal hellfire, with no alternatives between these black-and-white absolutes. Frannie’s family, on the other hand, attends a more moderate church, and Frannie herself is not forced to accompany the family and often chooses not to go at all. As Frannie says, if other people need to believe Jesus literally existed as God’s son and walked the earth, she is not going to tell them they are right or wrong; but Frannie herself “never thought of Jesus as being much of anything.”
Frannie arrives home from school to find her mother in bed in the middle of the day. Before Frannie was born, her mother had a baby girl who died at the age of one month, and her mother also suffered two miscarriages after Frannie was born. Her mother “came home quiet and sad” after these incidents, and now Frannie is worried that her mother might be depressed again. Frannie thinks that if Jesus really did come back to earth, she would ask him how he always has hope, when there is always a bully like Trevor hurting someone and a mother somewhere “who maybe wasn’t thriving.” Frannie goes to talk to her mother in bed, and she tells him about Jesus Boy. Her mother reminds her that everyone is the new kid at some point—Frannie herself once had to start school a month late because of chicken pox, and the combination of the late arrival and the lingering chicken pox scabs meant everyone stared at her and treated her as an oddity.
After talking to her mother, Frannie begins to fix dinner with her brother Sean, and readers see their close, friendly relationship as they communicate to each other in sign language. Their father arrives home after a few days on the road—he is a truck driver for Interstate Moving—and after talking to their mother, their father tells the children they have a little sister or brother on the way. Frannie immediately worries about the possibility of another miscarriage, but her father tells her not to worry about the past, to focus on the present and “be happy about it.”
Later, Frannie goes to the local rec center to watch her brother play basketball, one of her favorite activities. She runs into Jesus Boy and asks him how he knows sign language, and he says he just does, “maybe from when I was a baby or something.” He explains that he signed to Frannie because he saw her signing with Sean and realized she spoke sign language. Frannie then asks what life was like for Jesus Boy on the other side of the highway, and he says it was particularly difficult for his parents. Once, a policeman stopped him and his father because he thought the father was a stranger attacking him. Jesus Boy adds that he used to wish he looked just like his father, and he still does sometimes.
When Jesus Boy’s father comes to pick him up at the rec center, Frannie understands Jesus Boy’s explanation a bit more clearly: his father is black. Trevor, who is also at the rec center, also happens to see Jesus Boy with his father.
When Trevor finally returns to school, his arm still in a cast, he heckles Jesus Boy and eventually challenges him to a fight. As Frannie, Samantha, and the other students watch. Jesus Boy asks why Trevor wants to fight him. He suggests it is because Jesus Boy has a father and Trevor does not, then adds that his parents are not white and “as far as I know it, you are the one with the white daddy living across the highway.” Trevor takes a swing at Jesus with his good arm, but his injury leaves him unbalanced, and he falls, prompting most of the kids watching to laugh. Frannie runs over to Trevor and, along with Jesus Boy, helps him up.
After that incident, Frannie says, her classmates realize Jesus Boy is not a saint or some kind of anomaly—he is “just a boy.” By hurting someone, Jesus Boy reveals his own flaws, and he becomes “a human boy all complicated and crazy as the rest of us.” Later, Frannie talks to Samantha, who is trying to deal with what she has just witnessed. Samantha says now that she can no longer believe in Jesus Boy, she does not have “anything.” Samantha cannot understand why Frannie helped Trevor, even though she “hardly goes to church,” and why Jesus Boy also helped Trevor up after he had just said cruel things to him.Frannie suggests that maybe there is a piece of Jesus inside everyone, that maybe Jesus is what makes people show kindness even to someone who has hurt them. Or perhaps, she adds, Jesus might be “that thing you had when the Jesus Boy first got here”: hope.
Frannie comes home from school to find her mother up, cooking, and feeling better. She has had some tests, and the doctors said the baby is perfectly healthy. In school the next day, Jesus Boys tells the class he was adopted when he was three. After class, Jesus Boy tells Frannie he hopes to see her at the rec center on Saturday, and Frannie suggests maybe he knew someone before he was adopted who taught him sign language.
The novel ends on a sunny Saturday morning, as Frannie’s mother, now very pregnant, sits by the window in the sun. Later, Frannie plan to go to the rec center, watch her brother play basketball, and meet up with Jesus Boy. But for now, she is content to sit on her mother’s lap and feel the baby kick. Frannie thinks this might be one of those perfect moments Ms. Johnson has spoken about, “filled with light and hope and laughter.” The novel ends with Frannie and her mother sharing their perfect moment, as Frannie decides, “Each moment…is a thing with feathers.”