Thursday, August 2, 2007

The House You Pass on the Way

Woodson, Jacqueline. (1997). The House You Pass on the Way. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. ISBN 0399239693.

Staggerlee, born Evangeline Ian Canan, has a secret. She’s different. She’s not like dazzling Dotti, her older sister, who is very social and popular. She’s not like Charlie Horse, her older brother, good at piano and so overcome by it he can go for days playing without stopping to eat. She’s not like Battle, her younger brother, just a baby. She’s not baby Hope, the new sister—so beautiful Staggerlee keeps catching her parents photographing her. No, Staggerlee is her own person. Different. Content to spend her days walking by the river or in the barn alone with her harmonica.

She’s different because her father is black and her mother is white. She’s different because she likes girls ever since her friend Hazel kissed her. But Hazel isn’t her friend and she has moved away. Staggerlee is different and she feels all alone. Not alone by choice like her mother who is just a quiet woman, sneered at by the predominantly African-American community of Sweet Gum in which they live, but alone because she can’t tell anyone about herself.

That is until she meets her cousin Trout. Trout’s different, too. She was adopted at birth by Staggerlee’s estranged aunt Ida Mae. Ida Mae is Staggerlee’s daddy’s sister who hasn’t talked to him or Staggerlee’s family since before he and her white mother got married twenty years ago. But when Hallique, Staggerlee’s other aunt, dies suddenly, everyone realizes how important forgetting past problems is. How important family connections are. How unimportant races lines should be. So, Trout comes to visit, sort of as an ambassador.

But Trout is more of a connection than just family. It is through Trout that Staggerlee finds she isn’t as alone as she thought. Trout’s not only different because she’s adopted. She’s different because she’s like Staggerlee. Trout likes girls.

They spend the summer together, walking by the river, singing in the barn, drinking lemonade on the front porch. When Trout leaves, Staggerlee hopes it’s the beginning of something—not the end.

But as spunky as Trout seems to act, she isn’t as strong as Staggerlee thought. When Trout gets back to Ida Mae’s house, she gets a boyfriend, Matthew. Because sometimes it’s just easier to pretend. It’s more acceptable. It’s less “different.” This breaks Staggerlee’s heart in so many ways. But Staggerlee doesn’t regret anything. In fact, since Trout’s coming, Staggerlee feels changed in some way. She feels stronger. She has been invited to sing in the choral and is making friends. She’s not so different anymore either. Just in a different way. After all, they are just fourteen—who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Another linguistically rich text, full of texture and color, wonderful visual imagery. Woodson uses this imagery to carry a current of symbolism throughout the book. Staggerlee spends a lot of time pondering the seasons, not just winter versus summer in temperature but also in time passing—of the workers on her father’s farm, the harvesters whose work marks the seasons passing. There’s also the constant presence of Creek, her dog, as well as the ever-present river which seems to be more of a friend than a moving body of water. We see evidence of this on the first page:

It was winter that finally made Staggerlee remember. Something about the way the cold grabbed hold of her as she walked along the river, her dog, Creek, galloping behind her, their shadows like ink against the white snow. And in the distance, the house sitting big and silent with all her family’s land spread out beyond it. Even the land seemed vast and muted now. Staggerlee turned to look at it—remembering all the corn and collards, all the wheat that had been harvested. The land didn’t seem capable now, flat and snow-covered. All spring, men had come, men her father had hired to work the land. And Staggerlee had watched them moving slowly through the fields, plowing and planting, their faces lined and weathered. Then fall had come, and these same men had returned to harvest the corn and wheat that seemed to grow for miles and miles. Then winter—and the men faded into the thick quiet. Even their laughter—the way it carried back to the house from the fields—where was it now?

And then again, by summer, the workers are back—their laughing voices punctuating Staggerlee and Trout’s playing while in the fields:

The summer moved past them slowly. Each morning, after cooking and cleaning, they walked down to the river, their fingers laced, Creek dancing around them. On hot afternoons, they pulled their shirts up and pressed their bare stomachs into the cool earth.

They were left alone. Each morning, Staggerlee’s father went to the airport. His hired hands moved slowly through the fields, watering and feeding the crops there. Some afternoons, Staggerlee and Trout joined them in the fields and sat listening to the men’s tall tales of fifty-pound fish they had almost caught in the Breakabone River and money they would one day make. And once, when they had fallen asleep among the tall stalks of corn, Staggerlee and Trout woke to hear the men laughing and telling stories about different women they had loved.

The other chapters in the book always seem to begin or close with these same references—to the weather. For instance, the chapter where she shows Trout her secret hiding place, “It rained the morning Staggerlee showed Trout the barn—a cold late-summer rain that seemed to turn the whole world gray.” Once Trout is gone and Staggerless must go on with life—going back to school: “School started on a clear day at the end of August, and Staggerlee took to walking the six miles rather than riding the bus on pretty days.” And when things start to look up for Staggerlee: “Winter came early. By the end of October there was a sprinkling of snow on the ground. Staggerlee walked through it slowly, heading home.” Even when Staggerlee finally heard from Trout after months of silence, both Staggerlee AND Trout make reference to the weathery landscape.

Trout writes:
“I think about Sweet Gum all the time, and when I close my eyes now, I start remembering that line of trees along the water and imagining them heavy with snow.” The letter arrived on a cold day in January, after months and months of silence.

The letter continues:

It’s hard to sit in that study hall and not think about you. And I’ve tried. I sit there with my book propped in front of me and the words start blurring and becoming you standing at the river smiling or you and Creek running fast ahead of me yelling, “C’mon, Trout.”

With the snow on the ground, Sweet Gum and last summer seem ancient somehow, dreamy—like it all happened to someone who wasn’t me.

And then Staggerlee reacts to the letter:

That afternoon, Staggerlee folded the letter slowly and returned it to its envelope. She sat staring out at the snow, wanting to make sense of it all. She’d have to go back, she knew, if she wanted to remember. “Pull on your boots,” she whispered. “Take yourself down to the river.”

Even the very last passage of the book echoes this seasonal theme:

And Trout? What would she be doing tomorrow? The next day? Next week?

Waiting. Staggerlee thought. They were both waiting. Waiting for this moment, this season, these years to pass. Who would they become? she wondered. Who would they become?

I though this was an amazing book. The first half is about Staggerlee’s being different because she is both bi-racial and the granddaughter of a famous musical couple who were killed in a bombing on a night they could have been performing on the Ed Sullivan show. That first half raises a lot cultural questions about difference. But it is the second half, the tender relationship forming between two girls who are different for different reasons but also similarly different for another. They find solace in one another. In being able to tell, work out what the future might or might not hold and for once to have a shared moment of just being themselves and not being alone.

Reviews (via

Publishers Weekly:
The daughter of an interracial couple, 14-year-old Staggerlee is already an outsider when she wonders if she is gay, too. PW's starred review called this a "poignant tale of self-discovery" and praised Woodson's "graceful, poetic" prose. Ages 12-up.

Gr. 6^-9. Woodson takes the gay identity story far beyond the simplistic problem novel and connects it with every outsider's coming-of-age. Staggerlee is happy in her interracial family, but she is a loner at school and in her African American community, and she longs for a friend. Somehow she knows not to talk about the kiss she shared with a girl in her class. Then her girl cousin Trout comes to visit and they fall in love, but when Trout returns home and finds a boyfriend, Staggerlee is alone again. There's a lot of family history framing the central incident of the story (including famous grandparents who were killed by a bomb during a civil rights demonstration), and it's not always clear why, in such a short novel, we have to be told so much of the past before we can get to the immediate drama of the present. What many teens will relate to is the uncertainty, the sense that Staggerlee doesn't know who she is becoming and where her journey will take her.

A newfound confidante and a breath of common sense clears away a teenager's guilt and dismay over her dawning sexual preference in this thoughtful, deceptively low-key story from Woodson (From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun, 1995, etc.). The middle child in the county's only mixed-race family, Evangeline defiantly changed her name years ago to Staggerlee, after the anti-hero in a ballad, but the finger-pointing has driven her within herself, leaving her friendless and lonely--lonelier still for the memory of the pleasure she took in kissing a girl in grade school. Along comes Trout, another self-named teenager, from a branch of the family that had cut off her parents after their marriage. The attraction is quick, strong, and mutual; Trout's visit may be a short one, but it's long enough for each to open up, find the courage to say the word gay--and to remember that they're only 14, too young to close off options. Woodson takes readers another step down the road when Trout later writes to admit that she's gone head over heels for a guy, and Staggerlee, though feeling betrayed, realizes that she and Trout are both growing and going their own ways. A provocative topic, treated with wisdom and sensitivity, with a strong secondary thread exploring some of the inner and outer effects of biracialism. (Fiction. 12-15)

School Library Journal:
Grade 6-9. In this understated story set in a small, mostly African-American community in the South, Staggerlee Canan is shunned by her peers because her mother is white. This is not the sole cause of her isolation, however. She has a secret. In sixth grade, she had kissed another girl. Rejected by that friend, Staggerlee has no one to talk to about her sexual feelings until her adopted cousin, Trout, visits for the summer when both girls are 14. Both wonder if they are gay, but sexual identity is really only one of the things that troubles them. Their platonic intimacy is the intense kind shared by friends who see themselves as different from the crowd. Asked by Trout to say whether she's black or white, Staggerlee replies, "I'm me. That's all." That they seem to be taking different paths in the end adds to the story's poignancy. This richly layered novel will be appreciated for its affecting look at the anxious wonderings of presexual teens, its portrait of a complex interracial family, and its snapshot of the emotionally wrenching but inarticulate adolescent search for self. It's notable both for its quality and for the out-of-the-way places it goes.

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