Have you ever wondered what life would be like growing up in a family of bigamists? The situation seems unthinkable, but it happens. I'm not referring to a strange polygamist cult with unusual beliefs and an alternate lifestyle. I'm speaking of ordinary folks just like you and me, except that they live in secret and hide from the ones they love.
These are people with children, jobs and commitments, upstanding citizens in nearly every sense of the word, the only difference being that they sustain a strange, dual family system --- a system that inherently requires deception and is forced upon the children. It is done in order to preserve the daily harmony and protect the feelings of others, yet as the psychological strain builds (and we know it must), it becomes all-too clear that the ones who are hurt are always the innocents.
Bigamy is the subject of this unusual story told in SILVER SPARROW, covering the life of a bigamist husband and dual father. James Witherspoon is a middle-aged African American man who has lived his lie for two decades. His story begins innocently with his daughter's recollections of her own illegitimacy. Dana describes her parents' affair in full detail, including what it's been like for her through the years. She has been kept a secret all her life. Dana's mother originally confided their story to her daughter years ago, telling of her affair directly and honestly. Dana understands their reasons and relates to the longings of a lonely heart. She believes it happened out of the blue, and though it was certainly a dishonest act, she recognizes that it wasn't premeditated at all. It seemed to happen very naturally, though resulted in a pairing that could not be recognized and would lead to a life of disasters and hurts.
Dana's tale of her father's two wives and lives is a sad one, though compelling. This is a realistic story about deception, created by the needs of flawed people. The reality of James's life, years down the road, is a collection of lies and daily betrayals, with James being insistent on keeping both families and loving them all. His illegitimate wife Gwen seems to love him every bit as much as his public one, and his two daughters both adore him. Dana, however, is naturally bitter about being kept secret, only seeing her father occasionally and just at home. Yet, strangely, knowing her father's dirty secrets seems to make both Dana and her mother feel superior; they claim their victories where they can.
Amid this dishonesty and treachery is a touching story of two innocents: the sweet daughters who are the products of James's love. These girls only want to be loved and valued, and though Dana does love her parents, she can see the trap they're in. Because James's families live in the same small town in Alabama, they are bound to run into each other sooner or later. While Dana and her mother have been expressly forbidden to associate or speak to James's legitimate family, Dana has become intensely curious and jealous, making her brave enough to finally approach them.
There are some shocking realities to the odd situations of a bigamist family, and one of these is the strange notion that these families are mirror images of each other. Though James's girls and wives are physically different, they do live with the same man and share his bloodlines. This gives them certain similarities, especially in their emotional makeup, and leads to a situation when the girls will meet.
SILVER SPARROW is a touching story that will leave audiences identifying with all the lost children of the world. Though the subject seems heavy, Tayari Jones's third novel (following LEAVING ATLANTA and THE UNTELLING) really does read quickly and easily. The characters are all amazingly relatable and lifelike, and readers will definitely love the two daughters. The book will also satisfy any curiosities you might have about the psychology of bigamy.
--- Reviewed by Melanie Smith