Rosa Guy Ethel L. Heins - Essay

Ethel L. Heins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Friends] is a penetrating story of considerable emotional depth. Two teenaged girls—Phyllisia and her older sister Ruby—come to New York from the West Indies to join their émigré parents in "this trap of asphalt and stone called Harlem." Phyllisia's strangeness draws the fury of her classmates, and she is persecuted for her unfamiliar accent, her well-tended clothes, and her knowledgeable answers to the teacher's belligerent, sarcastic questions. The only amiable girl is Edith, poor and scruffy, whose cheerful assurances of friendship are accepted by Phyll with resentment and humiliation. To complicate matters, Phyll feels bitterness and defiance towards her father, Calvin, a big, boastful man, overbearing and even brutal—but hard-working and pathetically ambitious. Worse yet, her beautiful, intelligent mother is dying of cancer; and the family who adores her is gripped by helpless agony. Meanwhile, Edith too is the victim of catastrophe: Orphaned and existing in abject poverty, she wages and loses a battle against hunger and disease to keep her younger sisters with her. Then one day, Calvin is enraged to find the "ragamuffin" Edith visiting his ill wife; and Phyll, ashamed of her friend and mortified by her shame, hides behind her own fraudulent pride. In a passionate scene, her mother speaks out to her about love, cruelty, responsibility, and death. A strong, honest story—often tragic but ultimately hopeful—of complex, fully-realized characters and of the ambivalence and conflicts in human nature.

Ethel L. Heins, in her review of "The Friends," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1974 by the Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. L. No. 2, April, 1974, p. 152.