Although Rita Dove is known primarily as a poet, Through the Ivory Gate offers eloquent proof that she is a talented storyteller capable of spinning a highly readable yarn. Virginia King, the sensitive and highly introspective young heroine of the novel, has just graduated from college with an acting degree as well as a strong commitment to playing the cello. Unable to do either one professionally, she takes a brief job with a troupe of puppeteers. She lands a job in her hometown of Akron spending a month as an artist-in-residence at a local elementary school, where she instructs the children in the art of puppetry.

One of the little girls idolizes Virginia and becomes strongly attached to her, as does Terence, the father of one of her young puppeteers. There are no startling, dramatic moments in the book; the month in Akron is largely an opportunity for Virginia to rediscover her childhood roots and relive (through flashbacks) the most important moments in her life. The point of the book seems to be the way that Virginia defines her life internally; she lives, as it were, in the confines of her powerful imagination and memory. Although she becomes romantically attached to Terence, she leaves Akron at the end of the month with her future still unclear. This interlude, though, has allowed her to take an inventory of her life, thereby defining herself as an artist. At last, she has found the courage to make this supreme commitment, and the book...

(The entire section is 473 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Rita Dove’s Through the Ivory Gate is a tale of a young African American woman’s growing up, learning to use her varied artistic abilities despite obstacles, and beginning her career.

The frame action is set in Akron, Ohio, at the end of the Vietnam War era, with flashbacks to the 1950’s and early 1960’s and to events that took place in Wisconsin and Arizona. The third-person limited-omniscient narrative provides a full portrait of the main character, Virginia King, and an insight into what the coming of age must have been like for a talented African American woman of her era.

The “Prelude” to the story catches a glimpse of the child Virginia rejecting a black doll for a white one, then neglecting dolls, and finally finding the white doll not only outgrown but also ruined and decayed. The grownup Virginia has substituted puppets for dolls. The first chapter begins the present action, which takes Virginia back to her hometown of Akron, where she will begin a season as an artist-in-residence, teaching puppetry in a public grade school.

The time is the unsettled 1970’s, and Virginia’s life is at a standstill. In college, she has trained to be an actress, but at this time there are few calls for African American actresses. The question she must answer for herself is this: What can she and should she do with her abilities, which include mime, music, and puppetry as well as straightforward acting? The artist-in-residence program provides her with some breathing space, but she will shortly need to make irrevocable decisions. Defining her goals is difficult because her sense of self is uncertain, partly owing to the prejudices she has encountered in growing up in the 1950’s, but also because of her family life. She has never understood why her family suddenly moved from Ohio to Arizona and why they seemed personally changed after this move; her young adulthood has been obscured by this mystery. She believes that her return to her former home will help her to solve it, and she thinks that...

(The entire section is 836 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Although Through the Ivory Gate focuses on Virginia’s brief tenure at Washington Elementary in Akron, Ohio, the novel spans most of Virginia’s life, beginning with Virginia’s memory of Grandmother Evans’s anger at an African American doll with stereotypical features and ending with her grandmother’s “benediction and farewell.” In a sense, the novel concerns Virginia’s journey to knowledge about her parents, her racial identity, and herself; her memories and dreams of the past interrupt and influence the flow of ongoing events.

Virginia’s memory of a scene at the Akron train station is incomplete. She remembers the external action but does not know why the family moves to Arizona, why her mother calls her Aunt Carrie “lovely,” and why her father is near tears. The Arizona years are unhappy ones, characterized by her mother shutting out the outside world, her father’s obsessive quest to learn about other cultures, and her own desire to belong to the predominantly white high-school culture.

She majors in dramatics in college, pursues her cello playing, and meets Clayton, a homosexual musician with whom she has an affair. The affair ends, though she has illusions about Clayton returning to her. When she meets his homosexual lover, she accepts the situation and throws herself into drama, mime, and music. During her college years, which she calls a “refuge,” her progress with the cello becomes a kind of measure of her development,...

(The entire section is 608 words.)