Through the Ivory Gate
Through the Ivory Gate is a subtle and sensitive tale set in Akron, Ohio, at the end of the Vietnam era, with flashbacks to the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Rita Dove’s third book of poems, Thomas and Beulah (1986), won a Pulitzer Prize; she is the author of four books of poems and a collection of short fiction. One of the youngest Pulitzer Prize winners, Dove has also been recognized with a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her poetry is both intellectually challenging and emotionally satisfying, charged with what critic Arnold Rampersad praised as an “almost uncanny sense of peace and grace”—a description that applies as well to her first novel.
Through the Ivory Gate has the qualities novels written by poets often share—it contains lyrical description, it is not organized in a straightforward linear fashion, and its plot is not its main appeal. Patches of near-poetry surface in the narrative, mainly in the main character’s addresses to groups on the subject of puppets and their meanings. Reading this novel provides the kind of pleasure richly regionalist works have to offer, as well as giving a vivid impression of what it was like to grow up as an African American girl in the Midwest of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Its title, taken from The Odyssey, refers to the description of the two gates through which dreams may come:
For fleeting dreams have two gates: one is fashioned of horn and one of ivory. Those which pass through the one of sawn ivory are deceptive, bringing tidings which come to naught, but those which issue from the one of polished horn bring true results when a mortal sees them.
Memories as well as dreams are deceptive in this story, which weaves art and reality, illusion and truth, to create a fable of personal and social healing through art, what James Hillman might describe as a “healing fiction.”
Rita Dove was born and raised in Akron, Ohio, the setting of Through the Ivory Gate. Her description of the area, however, takes second place to the psychological realism that makes not only the main character, Virginia King, strongly convincing, but gives the ring of truth to the relationships and transactions within the many-layered society depicted.
The plot has an element of suspense to it, although the story line is not what keeps the reader’s involvement level high. The novel is set at the end of the Vietnam War. After finishing college and spending some time with a traveling troupe of puppeteers, Virginia returns to her hometown to teach puppetry as an “artist in residence” at the public grade school. Her life is in flux and decisions need to be made: She has trained to be an actress, but there are few calls for African American actresses. What should she do? The “artist in residence” program provides her with some breathing space, but she will shortly need to plan her life in a specific direction. Defining her goals will be difficult because her sense of self is uncertain, partly owing to the obstacles and 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 shadowed by this mystery. Her return to her former home will help her solve it, and she believes that dissipating this cloud will bring her one step further toward being in control of her life.
The deft use of flashbacks allows Dove to weave into the present action scenes from Virginia’s early childhood, her adolescent years in Arizona, her college experience, her first love affair, and her adventures with the traveling puppet troupe. Virginia’s perspective shows concretely the difficulties encountered by an African American student in dealing with her white counterparts, even those favorably disposed toward her. Her white friend Kelly always wants to tag along with Virginia, but Virginia wants to spend time alone with her black friends because
…if you were scattered like raisins among the white swirls of coeds during the week, it made you feel better if you could complain about being caught out in the rain, knowing the others understood how disastrous that was, all the kinks to comb out? How could they laugh about getting ash if they had to explain it to a white girl?
“What’s ash?” Kelly wanted to know.
Virginia sighed. “Dry skin. On darker complexions, dry and flaky skin looks gray. Like ash.”
“Oh.” Then: “Now, that didn’t take much effort, did it?”
Relationships between Virginia and whites tend to be friendly but formal, and her early memories are clouded by an especially hurtful insult that came unexpectedly from a child she thought was a good friend. But this is not a hostile book; its conclusion points toward healing rather than further disunity. The means or direction of healing is found, surprisingly, in the motif of puppets and puppetry.
The puppets dominate the story. Dolls, masks, and puppets, are a constantly present focus from the first page on. The child Virginia plays with dolls, trying without success to find a doll with which she can fully identify. Growing up, Virginia expresses herself through music, although she has difficulty finding an instrument to be her “voice.” As a young woman, she tries on roles through acting but cannot find many roles for African Americans. As a puppeteer, she creates a kind of magic. Here she is able to create her own image, literally a puppet she names Gina and allows to speak for her, figuratively a candid and direct person who has no social fears and can handle any situation. Virginia, however, is still looking for a means to speak in her own voice and use her full capabilities.
The opening scene shows the young child Virginia wanting a doll that is a parody of the African. To her plea, “Just a doll a funny doll, Grandma, can’t I...
(The entire section is 2472 words.)