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.
Susanna, did you ever meet her? I had the opportunity to meet her and spend some time with her a few times. I didn’t read The Wedding but will at some point. You know they made a movie out of it? I think they filmed some of it in OB but not sure about that.
I’m reading All the Light There Is to See.
No, I never met her. Saw her from a distance a couple of times at public events — before The Wedding came out — but never had the nerve to go up to her and tell her what an epiphany The Living Is Easy was for me, about Martha’s Vineyard and the world in general. I just recently learned about the movie — and also (thank you, Google) that Abigail McGrath, Dorothy West’s niece and the one whose wedding inspired the book, has been working on a novel based on the lives of Dorothy, poet Helene Johnson (McGrath’s mother), and other women of the Harlem Renaissance. That I want to read!
All the Light There Is to See sounds really good.
When I went to visit her in her home she had post it notes on everything, furniture, lamps, plastered on everything. She was in the middle of writing a book or something and was working with Jackie Kennedy on it. Jackie was working at the publishing company, I forget which one. But the post its were the way she organized herself. It was hilarious! She was such character.
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That must have been The Wedding. Here’s the dedication: “To the memory of my editor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Though there was never such a mismatched pair in appearance, we were perfect partners.” I’m glad to know about the Post-its. I haven’t started putting them on the furniture yet, but they’re all over everything I’m working on or reading — except the ebooks.
It must have been The Wedding she was working on then. Can you just imagine them working together. That’s a perfect description of them. Dorothy spoke very highly of Jackie.
She lived in this very humble campground house in East Chop, didn’t know it was referred to as the Highlands. She never married.
I read the book some time ago, and the movie appears on TV occasionally. I was surprised to learn that even in the African-American community skin color is an issue. I also wondered about the “Oval.” Not sure exactly where that is-there are a couple possibilities that come to mind; and I don’t know the history of the Campground, but I have lived in OB for over a decade and have never seen any African-American families lounging on their porches anywhere inside the campground. Correct me if I’m wrong, please.
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I believe the Oval is in the Highlands — closer to East Chop. About 25 years ago a friend who lives in the Campground pointed out the only house at that time that was owned by a black family. It was as close to the edge of the Campground as you could get — not far from the old fire station, where Alison Shaw’s gallery is now. The Campground was lily white for a long time.
Skin color has been a huge issue in the African American community for a long time, and as Dorothy West suggests, it’s very tied up with class.
Just downloaded the book. Thanks for the review–I’m always looking for book recommendations. In the middle of reading Elizabeth’s Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things so it will be a day or so before I get to The Wedding.
Looks like my post is in need of an editor!
Hey, it looked good to me! I did turn one hyphen into a dash and italicize the two book titles, but that’s because I’m compulsive.