Before Berry Gordy's Motown Records or Robert Johnson's Black Entertainment Network, there were successful African-American entrepreneurs. Men and women who built successful businesses in segregated communities, despite racism, lack of capital, or even their own personal limitations. The lives and success stories of these African Americans have been relegated to the infrequent biography, which tends to focus on their business achievements but seldom explores the individuals' character and connections to their times, family and community that make for a life well-lived.
Gwendolyn M. Parker changes all that in her satisfying first novel, "These Same Long Bones." The loving portrayal of Sirus McDougald is on one level the story of the successes and challenges of an entrepreneur and, by extension the black community of 1947 Durham, N.C. But on a deeper level Sirus' story brings us face to face with questions on the place of all men within their families, their communities and within the deepest recesses of their hearts.
Sirus McDougald is an official with North Carolina Federated Insurance Co., founder of a bank and a successful developer of real estate in Hay-Ti, the "colored section" of Durham. But we only come to know these facts later in the novel. We first see Sirus simply as a man sleeping, his long legs tangled in the sheets, who only gradually wakens from a dream of forgetfulness. His daughter has died. As the reality of the loss he is trying to hold at bay dawns upon him, we are plunged into his grief and the life of Hay-ti.
Sirus' hopes and losses are shared by the people of Hay-Ti. His neighbor, Etta Baldridge, is concerned that Sirus' profound grief may disrupt the social fabric of the community:
"She imagined a pall settling over the families, over all their hard work and their dreams of 'progress for the race,' until the whole fragile structure wilted and lay dead. She imagined an edgy despair spreading through the town, so that when someone fell on hard times people turned away instead of coming by with a pot of greens or a pile of carefully folded clothes. . . . Sirus was the knotted thread that bound them together."
Sirus, however, has slipped his moorings. His thoughts drift between a numbed but organized sense of duty natural to the patriarch of a Southern family and memories of himself as a gangly, intense child. As his present unravels before him, Sirus desperately tries to escape to the bitter-sweet memories of a time when he learned the first painful lessons about racism, when he first began to understand that there was a price to be paid for dreams.
It is finally the sense of duty and the sheer necessity to get through it that allows Sirus to make funeral arrangements, greet mourners and make the first tentative steps toward his wife, Aileen, who has left their home to grieve at her mother's.
Although author Parker works on a small canvas, she fills it with consistently well-drawn characters who people Hay-Ti and form the network of blood, muscles, bones and hearts that gives life and vibrancy to the community and the novel itself. In addition to Sirus there are Jason Morgan, the town's undertaker and Sirus' lifelong friend, with whom he shares a refreshing and real relationship; the Baldridges, struggling with the fears that death brings; and a host of neighbors, friends and other community leaders, all with their own emotions and ambitions that Parker skillfully illuminates without detracting from the main characters or from the central narrative.
But most compelling is the relationship between Sirus and Aileen, one that Sirus fervently hoped on his wedding day would give him the same satisfaction as his childhood friendship with Jason. But his bright dreams are dimmed by everyday misunderstandings, small things that eventually drive a wedge between the couple. Here, and in flashbacks to Sirus' relationship with daughter Mattie, Parker writes with great insight into the gradual disintegration of intimacy in a marriage; it's chilling and altogether as true of families in 1994 as in 1947. The crushing pain of Sirus' and Aileen's loss makes you root for their reconciliation.
But it is ultimately the community of Hay-Ti that gives Sirus his greatest gifts and his healing: the palpable love and pride of those attending a dinner in his honor; the confidence and trust placed in him by the future residents of a housing development. It is the challenge brought about by this new development, a joint venture with white developers who want to make a quick post-war profit in the black community, that reawakens Sirus to his role in the world, to the good he can still do; in the end he manages to blend his strength of character, business acumen and loving nature for the good of all. It is this reawakening to life's possibilities that enable Sirus, Aileen and other characters devastated by loss to achieve a state of grace, described by the McDougald's trusted housekeeper Mrs. Johnson as "happiness that has been tested by pain."
Parker, who is a native of North Carolina and a great-granddaughter of one of the founders of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co., writes of a time, a place and a people in such a quiet, haunting manner that you might overlook the mastery of the language and her craft that is evidenced on every page. It is this gracefulness and assurance that mark "These Same Long Bones" as a tremendous achievement and herald Parker as a novelist of note.