Picks and Pans Review: Betsey Brown

UPDATED 05/27/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/27/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

by Ntozake Shange

Her first novel, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, was a beguiling and savvy work filled with knowing references to folk magic and black magic. This time Shange, 36, has written a lyrical, semiautobiographical tale about growing up at a time when racial barriers were coming down, at least in theory. At 13, Betsey Brown is a bright, innocent middle-class girl in St. Louis in 1959. She lives in a pleasant house with an extended family that includes three siblings, a cousin and her maternal grandmother. Betsey's mother is a social worker who is keen on morals, manners and order in the house; the girl's father, a doctor, enjoys quizzing the family on African history and jazz artists each morning before school. As a result, Betsey knows a lot about Dizzy Gillespie, Tina Turner, black poetry and the standard composition of the blues. When court-ordered school desegregation sends her to a previously all-white school, Betsey becomes more aware of her racial identity than ever before. Shange's description of how Betsey reconciles her cultural heritage with her new surroundings, while learning to express her own adolescent individuality, makes this an enchanting, often poetic story. Best known for her play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Shange is a novelist of great sensitivity who puts a reader inside her characters' minds. Betsey Brown sometimes wanders, focusing on what seem to be gratuitous events, but since even these are rendered with convincing vividness, the book holds together, more often than not, thanks to its charm and sass. (St. Martin's, $12.95)

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