1959 is a novel by Thulani Davis that was published in 2001 by Grove Press. It is a first-person coming-of-age narration that chronicles a young black girl named Willie Tarrant
coping with adolescence and tensions over desegregation in Turner, Virginia. It's also a fictional chronicle of how Willie's community is transfomed by the civil rights movement.
I was interested
to read the novel because it speaks to an African American experience in an era that
I have little knowledge of. One
of the things I’ve wrestled with a bit creatively is the issue of description.
Generally, I’m fairly confident about how much description is desirable in the
fiction genres I normally work in. But I haven’t written a young adult novel before, and
I haven’t written much historical fiction. So I don’t (yet, anyhow) know how
much of my own instincts I can trust in that regard.
I started reading 1959 with an eye to
how much and what kind of description Davis uses in her novel. And to my
surprise, her descriptive prose is actually fairly generic in many instances:
really wasn’t anyplace a boy could take a girl. There was a colored bowling
alley in an old Quonset hut, where boys set up the pins, and one segregated
movie house. We could get take-out snacks at Shorty’s little drive-in place, or
go to somebody’s house. If you were very careful about nobody seeing you, there
were some places you could walk on the beach. These things didn’t matter much,
since being with a boy in a car seemed clearly the most exciting thing you were
going to do anyway. Going somewhere was gravy. We drove around to the quiet boulevard where the rich folks lived and the whole bay opened into the sky.
description here is specific but almost totally without any detail. Davis
relies on the reader having experiences with bowling alleys and drive-in
restaurants to fill in those details on their own. We can easily imagine Willie
and her friends getting hot dogs and sodas at Shorty’s, but we can’t really
know that from the narrative. If you have been to a beach, you can imagine
secluded spots the kids could go to take a walk, but if you’re a landlocked Midwesterner like me, that line comes off as a little less than evocative. We
don’t know anything about what kind of car they’re driving around in; there’s
no sensory grounding about the smell of the ashtray or whether anyone put fuzzy dice on
the rearview mirror or if there were ketchup stains on the upholstery or
anything. We know the rich folks lived on a boulevard, but what does any of
that look like? Big white houses with shading oaks and three-car garages? Brick mansions with ivy, statuary and fountains? The book doesn’t tell us.
as the narrator says, these things don’t matter so much to the novel. The world
building work in these pages is borne not by any lush, specific detail but
through dialogue and the emotional details of the narrative. It’s a book about people, not things; snacks and cars and
beaches can remain fairly generic background props that don’t really matter
compared to the relationships in the foreground.
that Davis doesn’t bother with describing what record players in 1959 actually
looked like or what teens on a date might have to eat should give other writers more confidence
in the levels of description they've chosen for their own novels.