This Child's Gonna Live Summary
by Sarah E. Wright

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This Child's Gonna Live Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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Although This Child’s Gonna Live consists of the stream-of-consciousness narrations of both Mariah and Jacob Upshur, the novel begins and ends with Mariah’s thoughts, conversations with God, and actions as seen from her perspective. Since most of the chapters belong to Mariah, it becomes her story, a tale of attempted flight from poverty, racism, and religious hypocrisy.

As the story begins, a distraught, pregnant Mariah worries about whose child—Dr. Albert Grene’s or Jacob’s—she will bear. She becomes determined to escape the poverty, racism, and religious hypocrisy of the African American community of Tangierneck. If “this child’s gonna live,” she believes that she must flee north, although she is aware that none of Jacob’s brothers has survived exodus to Baltimore. Since her thoughts flow by association, the present is inextricably related to the past as well as to the future. The loss of Mary, her first daughter, the scars on her father’s back, and Jacob’s exploitation by Miss Bannie all suggest the futility of life in Tangierneck. Jacob is equally upset, but his concerns involve the impending loss of land to Miss Bannie, whom he blames for his troubles.

Both Mariah and Jacob confront past and present humiliations. At a prayer meeting, the Committee of Judgment denounced Mariah for being pregnant out of wedlock, and Bertha Upshur protected Jacob’s reputation. Jacob learns about Bannie’s involvement in the death of Bard Tom, his grandfather; and Mariah hears that Aunt Cora Lou, who was going to get help for Mariah, has been run down by a carload of white teenagers. When Mariah meets Miss Bannie, who has been attacked by Percy, she sympathizes with her until Miss Bannie utters a string of racial insults. Mariah and Jacob, whose minds are preoccupied by death, both intend to kill Miss Bannie. Jacob is easily persuaded to go home, while Mariah succeeds in getting Miss Bannie to the Gut, where she plans to drown her. She cannot follow through, but when she accompanies Miss Bannie to her home, she gives her the pills that cause her death.

Miss Bannie’s death is followed by Mariah’s giving birth to a light-skinned daughter. Her father asks, “Well, what in the name of God has the Master sent us here?” Mariah links the death and the birth when she bargains with God about dying for her sins but allowing her child to live. Although she considers suicide, she resolves to live when the “Messenger” absolves her of guilt in Miss Bannie’s death. Even in death, Miss Bannie precipitates trouble. Her will poses problems for the white power structure. Jacob’s queries about the will cause more violence, including visits by the Paddy Rollers (a white vigilante group), a beating, the burning of the local school, and the arrest and subsequent lynching of Percy Upshur, who had revealed the truth about Dr. Grene and Bannie. When Mr. Nelson lays claim to the Upshur land, Jacob has to leave Tangierneck to “seek his fortune” and regain the land.

Jacob moves his family to Chance. Here Wright abandons her practice of modifying real place-names to take advantage of the irony in “Chance,” a “real” Eastern Shore town where the family lives in squalid quarters. In this part of the novel, Wright focuses on the exploitation that migrant laborers suffered, whether working in a canning factory in Chance or picking strawberries on Kyle’s Island, where Rabbit gets tuberculosis and dies. During its migrant odyssey, the family returns three times to Tangierneck to attend funerals. These returns suggest that the Upshur family cannot escape from Tangierneck and that death ties it to the land.

The funeral of Vyella, Jacob’s adopted sister and Mariah’s best friend, is the most significant of the three because Mariah has to confront her feelings about her best friend, her family, and her fate. Mariah, who was putting money aside for her escape from Tangierneck, had entrusted her savings to Vyella. Shortly before her...

(The entire section is 1,228 words.)