The Chinaberry Tree by Jessie Fauset (thoughts)
The Chinaberry Tree by Jessie Fauset surprised me. Having read a fair amount of Harlem Renaissance novels, I thought I knew what to expect, even though Fauset is new to me. Instead, I found myself reading a quiet, domestic midcentury novel that wouldn’t be out of place in a Persephone Books catalogue. It primarily follows the fortunes of two young women, living in a small, middle class black town in New Jersey: Laurentine Strange, in her mid twenties for most of the novel (and thus teetering on spinsterhood), and her cousin Melissa, a school girl in her late teens who moves in.
I loved the town and how Fauset paints both it and the snug, beautiful house the girls live in. In fact, her loving attention to detail and country fun reminded me a bit of L.M. Montgomery, as did her affectionate portrayal of the hijinks Melissa and her friends get up to. But while the town might be quiet and lovely, it is also judgemental: Laurentine has always found herself a bit beyond the pale due to her mother’s illegitimate relationship with a white man, which was so full of love and devotion it was essentially a common law marriage (carried in spite of the man’s white wife, of course). Her mother has accepted the situation as the price she paid for love (and financial security, although not as much as the man intended). But Laurentine struggles to reconcile her inner vision of herself with what the townspeople think. And while her antecedents might not hamper her business life, they do affect her love life. Melissa, meanwhile, experiences the town as a newcomer: protected by her aunt and cousin’s money and her own high spirits, her own high school life is very different from Laurentine’s.
As you can probably tell from the above paragraph, the conflicts and challenges in this novel are of the interior kind. No one is ever at risk of starvation or violence, but they are at risk for a kind of inner anguish. I especially connected with Laurentine, a woman who has responded to past spurning with a magnificently proud exterior, who creates a business for herself and sees it thrive, and who has a mix of feelings stirred up by Melissa’s sudden arrival into what has been a compact, self-contained world. Fauset does a good job with her characterisations, both the primary ones and the more secondary ones felt vivid and genuine. That being said, her writing occasionally becomes too sentimental, as cloying cliches take over, and the conclusion of one of the plot threads deeply frustrated me. These flaws are fairly slight, and the book as a whole was still well worth the reading, but they are present.
In all, I’m thrilled to have found a cosier POC classic author. As anyone committed to reading diversely with an inclination for older books knows, it’s a challenge to first of all find the POC options and then they tend to emotionally challenging reads. This makes sense, since being a person of colour in the historical white world was also emotionally challenging. But Jessie Fauset, and the middle class black women she writes about, has now been put down on my list of comfort authors. I highly recommend The Chinaberry Tree to anyone who enjoys older, traditionally feminine feeling novels, and especially to the many bloggers out there who are fans of Persephone Books or Virago Modern Classics.