The Richer, the Poorer

Dorothy West, Author
Dorothy West, Author Doubleday Books $22 (254p) ISBN 978-0-385-47145-9
Paperback - 276 pages - 978-0-385-47146-6
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The Wedding, West's first novel in nearly half a century, was published earlier this year to critical acclaim. This collection of short stories and essays, most previously published in small magazines and the Martha's Vineyard Gazette, rounds out several of the themes touched on in that book. The 17 stories are somewhat limited in range, but they adroitly reflect the degrading effects of poverty and prejudice, and the healing powers of family and the imagination. The collection begins with ``The Typewriter,'' written when the author was 14 and demonstrating remarkable talent, maturity and sensitivity. Other tales illuminate the class-consciousness of black people themselves, who discriminate according to darkness of complexion (best seen in the poignant, ``Mammy''), the tension of unhappy marriages and the puzzling foibles of adults as witnessed by observant children. The 13 nonfiction pieces are the stronger entries. The biographical sketches are dominated by affectionate portraits of West's family, especially her mother. Despite her privileged background (she grew up as part of Boston's black bourgeoisie and later knew virtually all of the most prominent African Americans of her time), West maintains a sensible perspective on the changing world and her place in it. An account of her 1933 trip to Moscow with Langston Hughes and others offers a fascinating glimpse of a time when hope in the future ran high. The most affecting entry is a portrait of Wallace Thurman, product and victim of the Harlem Renaissance. Overall, this welcome book offers two pictures of African American life seen through the eyes of a knowledgeable and wise observer: the elite society that was West's birthright, and the underclass she empathetically portrays. (July)
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