Last Updated on August 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1053
When Marguerite returned to San Francisco, she found that she had changed, but her brother, Bailey, had changed even more. He seemed much older and had acquired a new group of friends, streetwise boys who wore zoot suits and drank sloe gin. He also began to fight with their mother. The author thinks that oedipal feelings were at the root of Bailey’s hostility, as he felt himself unable to compete with adult admirers for his mother’s attention. Finally, he left home one night at 1:00 a.m., asking Marguerite to come with him. When she refused, he said that she could have his books. After Bailey moved out, he came to an arrangement with his mother that she would secure a job for him as a dining car attendant on the Southern Pacific Railroad. At the age of sixteen, a year older than his sister, he was making his way in the world alone. Marguerite was frustrated that he was so calm in coming to this decision about his future.
Following Bailey’s departure, Marguerite decided that she wanted to get a job to demonstrate her own independence. After considering various options, she decided to apply for a position as a streetcar conductor, despite her mother telling her that Black people were not eligible for these jobs. When she applied in person, the receptionist for the streetcar company put her off with excuses, so Marguerite appealed to various Black advocacy organizations for support. The officials at these groups did not understand her enthusiasm for this particular job when better-paid positions were available, and she was “bounced . . . back and forth like a shuttlecock on a badminton court.”
Marguerite’s mother encouraged her persistence, and finally, though she cannot quite say how, she secured a job, claiming to be nineteen years old and to have experience. She was the first Black person hired to work on the San Francisco streetcars. When she returned to school, she discovered that working a regular job, as well as her other experience, had made the gulf between her and the other students even wider, and she began to cut classes. When her mother discovered this, she told her that as long as Marguerite kept up with her schoolwork, she could stay at home whenever she liked. The author reflects that it is often regarded as surprising that “the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character” but that given the struggles Black girls have to go through, this strength in those who survive is inevitable.
Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness provided Marguerite with her first introduction to lesbianism and to what she thought of as pornography, though her lack of background knowledge meant that it confused her more than it informed. She thought lesbians were “hermaphrodites” and felt sorry for them. Soon, however, the changes in her own physique made her think that she herself might be turning into a lesbian, and she had to turn to her mother for reassurance that she was going through the normal experiences of a teenage girl.
In order to finally prove that she was not a lesbian, and to quench her increasing thirst for sexual experience, Marguerite planned to seduce one of two handsome brothers who lived on the same street. Her seduction plan was unusually direct: she simply asked the boy if he wanted to have sex, whereupon his mouth hung open “like a garden gate.” Her first experience of sex took place in complete silence and was marked by “laborious gropings, pullings, yankings and jerkings.” There was no romantic element, and afterward she felt that not much had happened. Three weeks later, however, she found herself pregnant.
Marguerite felt as though the world had ended and only she had noticed. She could not even blame anyone else for her pregnancy, as it was she who had initiated the encounter. She wrote to Bailey, who advised her not to tell their mother about the pregnancy, as she was violently opposed to abortions and would probably insist on Marguerite giving up school. Only after she had received her high school diploma did she tell her mother and Daddy Clidell. At this point, she was eight months pregnant, and they were amazed that they had not noticed.
Marguerite’s son was born after a short labor. She loved him immediately and would sit by his bassinet absorbing “his mysterious perfection.” After three weeks, her mother told her that she should sleep with the baby. Marguerite was afraid of rolling over in her sleep and crushing him, but when she woke, she found that she was lying on her stomach, protecting her son with a tent formed from her blanket. Her mother told her that this showed Marguerite could trust her instincts and would do the right thing for her son without having to think about it.
The development of both Marguerite and Bailey accelerates in the final chapters of the book. Bailey seems much older to Marguerite and confirms that he shares her impression of him when she questions whether he should be leaving home. In Marguerite’s case, the reader is able to follow the rapid mental and physical changes she undergoes in far more detail. The firmer character she acquired during her month in the junkyard is quickly put to the test when she needs all the persistence she can muster to get the job she wants as a streetcar conductor. At this point in her life, her relationship with her mother changes as much as her own character, becoming much more equal and supportive. However, he mother is still too preoccupied with her own life to realize that Marguerite is pregnant until she is almost ready to give birth.
At the beginning of the last chapter, Marguerite reacts to her pregnancy in a conventional way, as a harbinger of ruin and disgrace for a teenage girl, a sign that her life of reading, writing, thought, and pursuing a career is effectively over. Instead, having a son makes her more confident and gives her a new sense of purpose. The book ends with her mother confirming that she need not worry too much about her fitness to perform her new role, since her instincts as a parent are right.
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