cover image Sarah's Psalm

Sarah's Psalm

Florence Ladd. Scribner Book Company, $23 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-684-80410-1

Like many first novels, Ladd's, about an African American Harvard doctoral student who moves to Senegal to study--and eventually marry--the writer about whom she wrote her dissertation, exhibits the best of intentions. Earnest but didactic, it chronicles Sarah Thompson's search for a purpose in life, as played out against the backdrop of the 1960s, when the civil rights movement and the newly gained independence of African nations staked often conflicting claims on the imaginations of America's black elite. But with stereotyped characters, a fairy-tale setting and a melodramatic plot, this is essentially a romantic potboiler with a PC veneer. Sarah's husband, Lincoln, is such a pinched soul from the get-go, such a caricature of mid-century male black bourgeois caution, that Sarah's desire to leave him--for anything or anywhere--seems a no-brainer. Certainly Ladd, director of the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe, makes some trenchant points about black solidarity in the diaspora and white ethnocentrism, but they are stiff and preachy. And while narrator Sarah claims to be moved by major events back in the States--the assassinations of the Kennedys, King, Malcolm X--the book treats these events as items that need to be checked off a list in a cursory tour of the years from 1962 to 1980. Readers, like both Sarah's mother and her academic mentor, may remain unconvinced that an urban, intellectual American career woman can be truly happy as secretary and wife to a venerated African novelist. (Aug.)