(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

A heavily pregnant woman named Patience looks up from picking cotton and sees a tornado bearing down on the cotton field. Mother Barker, one row over, begins to pray. The tornado picks up speed, destroys cotton in a circle around the workers, and then lifts harmlessly into the sky. That night, Mother Barker brings food to the exhausted Patience, who is alone in her cabin. Her husband, Strong, has not accompanied her to the cotton fields because he can make more money in his Ponca City barbershop.

On the following day, Patience has a baby girl, Abyssinia, while she is working in the field. The birth takes place on cotton sacks between the foreman’s fire and the weighing-in bin. A spark flies out of the fire and falls on the baby’s cheek, leaving a scar in the shape of a cotton blossom.

While still a baby, Abby begins to hum when the congregation sings at church. She grows up playing with the other children of Ponca City and searching for roots with Mother Barker. In her father’s Better Way Barbershop, she hears yarns spun by his male customers. She makes ice cream and plays games with her best friend, Lily Norene.

When Abby is ten years old, she is about to be given an award for reading the most books of anyone in her grade when another tornado strikes. During the storm, the children are safe in the school’s basement. When they come out, they see that everything has been leveled. Abby and Lily Norene find a neighbor woman named Miss Sally hiding behind a tree. Her mind seems to be gone, and she trembles constantly. Abby’s father, who has lost his barbershop, sits motionless on the vacant lot where it used to stand. Ten days later, he leaves town on a bus.

Abby is devastated by the loss of her father. Not long after his disappearance, she returns some empty milk buckets to a deacon in her church, and he rapes her in his barn. She becomes mute and develops pneumonia while recovering from her injuries. While she is...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Marked by Fire, the first novel by Joyce Carol Thomas, tells the story of the first twenty years in the life of Abyssinia Jackson, a black girl born in the fields of Oklahoma in 1951 as a tornado goes through. Set entirely in Ponca City, Oklahoma, the work captures the experience of a young woman coming of age in rural America in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Marked by Fire is divided into thirty short chapters, each designated not by title or number but by calendar date. The narration is entirely from the third-person point of view, although the story is always concerned only with Abby’s experiences, thoughts, and development. All the main characters in the novel are black; hence, Abby’s problems are never directly related to racial discrimination or prejudice. Her enemies are two other blacks, Trembling Sally and Brother Jacobs, and nature itself.

The organization of the novel and story is entirely chronological. Abby’s life is momentous from her birth because of the tornado, which is viewed by her family and friends as an omen. This fictional biography chronicles some twenty years in her life, during which she overcomes problems few young people must face.

The setting of the small Oklahoma town frames the activities of Abby’s family. Abby enjoys listening, then telling, stories in the folk tradition; she sings hymns at church and at home; she excels in school as a reader; and she learns the art of folk medicine from her older friend and mentor, Mother Barker.

One of the most important developments of the plot occurs early in the story. After Thomas records numerous instances of the peace and desirability of Abby’s early life, a second tornado comes to town—one which destroys the barbershop of Strong Jackson, Abby’s father. Devastated, he inexplicably runs away from home and family, giving no reasons. This desertion leaves the family without income and in conditions that are otherwise worse than could have been foreseen.


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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Childress, Alice. Review of Marked by Fire, by Joyce Carol Thomas. The New York Times Book Review, April 18, 1982, 38. A laudatory early review by a noted novelist and playwright. Childress praises Thomas for finding “a marvelous fairy tale quality in everyday happenings.”

Henderson, Darwin L., and Anthony L. Manna. “Evoking the Holy and the Horrible’: Conversations with Joyce Carol Thomas.” African American Review 32 (Spring, 1998): 139-146. Thomas discusses the influence of her childhood as a migrant farm worker in Oklahoma and California on her work. Although she only briefly mentions Marked by Fire, this interview provides a useful context in which to view this as well as her other novels.

Randall-Tsuruta, Dorothy. Review of Marked by Fire. The Black Scholar 13, nos. 4 & 5 (Summer, 1982): 48. Praises Thomas’ “poetic tone” and “fine regard and control of dialogue.”

Rollock, Barbara. Black Authors and Illustrators of Children’s Books: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Garland, 1988. Gives a useful factual summary of Thomas’ career. Discusses her editorship of Ambrosia, a newsletter for black women, and her lecturing in Africa, Haiti, and the United States.

Thomas, Joyce Carol. Bright Shadow. New York: Avon Books, 1983. The sequel to Marked by Fire follows Abby into college. Winner of the Coretta Scott King Award as an outstanding contribution to literature for African American children.

Wray, Wendell. “Marked by Fire.” Best Sellers 42 (June, 1982): 123-124. Wray interprets the novel primarily as a folk tale; he finds in the novel itself qualities and characteristics of Abby’s own ability to render tall tales. Like other critics, he also finds similarities to the works of Maya Angelou.

Yalom, Marilyn, ed. Women Writers of the West Coast: Speaking of Their Lives and Careers. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1983. Discusses the central role of women in Thomas’ fiction and explores the real-life sources of her characters.