Why did it take me almost 20 years to find my way to The Wedding? It’s not as though I didn’t know it was there, and it’s certainly not as though I didn’t know of Dorothy West. I read her first novel, The Living Is Easy, not long after it was reprinted by the Feminist Press (now at CUNY) in the early 1980s.
I was a feminist bookseller in Washington, D.C., at the time. For the previous 15 years or so, I’d been an occasional visitor to Martha’s Vineyard. On my visits I mostly hung out on Tisbury Great Pond. Before The Living Is Easy, I had no clue that there was an African American summer community on the Vineyard, or that it dated back at least to the First World War.
Then it dawned on me that the Dorothy West who wrote the Oak Bluffs column for the Vineyard Gazette and the Dorothy West who had written The Living Is Easy were one and the same person. My psychic map of Martha’s Vineyard, which at that point was more or less a triangle with the airport, Alley’s, and Nip N Tuck Farm at its three points, expanded so fast, in time as well as space, that it was a while before I could take it in.
So why did it take so long to come to The Wedding? Well, when it came out, I was just getting down, with much angst, self-doubt, and procrastination, to writing my own first novel. A couple of years later I got back into horses, after 30 years away. Between one and the other and working full-time, I missed a lot. Probably the title put me off some. If weddings were vampires — not a bad analogy, come to think of it — I’d wreath myself in garlic.
The literal wedding of the title doesn’t even take place in these pages, but in a way the entire novel is about the weddings — the matings and meldings — that eventually produced Shelby, the bride-to-be. As a child, Shelby, the younger daughter of the affluent Coles family, wanders off from “the Oval,” the novel’s mainstage, the geographical and figurative heart of the African American summer community on mid-1950s Martha’s Vineyard. In the wider summer world, she is mistaken for white. She could pass if she wanted to. She doesn’t, but the man she’s engaged to is white. Worse, as far as her family is concerned, he’s not a doctor: he’s a jazz musician.
Older sister Liz has transgressed in the opposite direction: she married a doctor (good) who was visibly “colored” (horrors!). And her infant daughter, Laurie, inherited her father’s skin color, thus becoming both a rebuke and a challenge to the family’s more color-conscious members. Especially Gram, Liz and Shelby’s great-grandmother. Gram, doddering towards her 100th birthday, is bona fide white, the daughter of a slave-owning southern plantation owner. Her only consolation is watching her colored descendants become whiter and whiter, in both demeanor and appearance — until Laurie comes along.
How Gram’s only daughter came to marry a black man is part of the multi-generational saga that Dorothy West sketches in this exquisite, poignant, heart-wrenching novel. Contrary to the conventional injunction to “show, don’t tell,” West does a fair amount of telling, but her telling is so rich with detail and insight that this reader barely noticed.
Shelby and Liz have both white southern gentry and hardworking colored farmers in their family tree. The weddings that produced them were practical, sometimes carefully calculated affairs. If love played a role, it was after the fact — and often outside the marriage. The affluent colored vanguard who established and maintained the Oval have now become the old guard, with all the elitism and class consciousness that implies. Shelby and Liz represent the first generation with enough security to marry for love, and no one is more uneasy about this than those who worked so hard and sacrificed so much to make that freedom possible.
It’s not a unique story, about the costs and consequences of upward mobility, but The Wedding is exceptionally well written, sometimes funny, and deeply, often excruciatingly wise. If you haven’t read it already, put it on your list.