Picks and Pans Review: Autobiography of a Family Portrait

UPDATED 04/03/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/03/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

by Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson's first adult novel is a slender volume with the weight of an anvil. A chronicle of the coming-of-age of a young black girl in an urban ghetto with the requisite fragmented family, sexual awakening, racial tension and the aftershock of the Vietnam War, Autobiography transcends familiar territory. In terse chapters, the unnamed female narrator exposes blood and bone with powerful images and pure poetry.

Baby brother Cory is suspiciously "white as spilled salt." Eldest brother Troy likes to wear women's clothes and prances in a dress and high heels the night before he leaves for the war that his father says will make him a man. The parents fight with words and blows, and our narrator feels sexual desire "like a trash can fire, blowing a hot breeze in my direction."

Troy comes home in a box, and the father leaves. Our defiant narrator survives. She pushes away her cup when her mother tells her coffee will make her blacker, but she won't get pregnant and she won't wear dresses. "I am told I am too skinny, too dark, too angry," she observes. "This girl sitting here with her arms wrapped around her legs is not a girl but a woman. And in this woman there are a million little girls bottled, muted." (Dutton, $17.95)

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