Woodson, Jacqueline. 1997. THE HOUSE YOU PASS ON THE WAY. New York: Delacorte Press. ISBN 0385321899.
Staggerlee, the child of an interracial marriage, is accustomed to feeling out of place. While her older siblings seem to make friends easily, Staggerlee is viewed as “stuck up” by her classmates, probably due to her introverted nature more than her status in town as the grandchild of famous slain civil rights activists and performers. The summer before starting high school, Staggerlee’s adopted cousin Trout comes for a visit and becomes her first true friend. While the girls share an independent streak and self-invented names, they also cling to each other as they attempt to understand their homosexual feelings, something they hide from the rest of the world. Once high school begins, both girls make choices to more forward as they wait for the future to unfold.
CRITICAL ANALYSIS (INCLUDING CULTURAL MARKERS)
Jacqueline Woodson draws from her own struggles finding acceptance in an interracial, lesbian relationship to bring this story to life. Staggerlee and Trout are both hopeful and fearful of the consequences of their homosexual feelings. Their futures seem more uncertain than most teenagers as they ponder the implications of their sexuality. Woodson’s personal background lends an air of authenticity to this story of teenage girls trying to decide how to present themselves to the world, while still following their hearts.
Woodson challenges the often unstated social rules that still govern much of American society through her dynamic characters. The teenagers feel they must hide their awakening homosexual feelings, even though they privately question why this must be so. As the story begins, Trout is seen as the more confident of the two, more assertive in her independence and opinions. However, as Trout’s arrival forces Staggerlee to confront her feelings and sexuality, Staggerlee emerges as the stronger one. When Trout submits to peer pressure and begins dating a boy, even changing her name back to Tyler to impress him, Staggerlee is left feeling betrayed and disappointed by Trout’s compliance. She remarks that she “thought Trout was stronger than that.” Even though Staggerlee has not admitted her lesbian feelings to anyone else, she is still refusing to bend to society and looks forward to the day she will meet another girl like her, someone she can boldly take to a party. Staggerlee’s developing awareness and acceptance of her own homosexuality makes a strong role model for other young adults trying to understand their own feelings.
Staggerlee’s interracial family provides another layer to this complex and emotional tale. Even though the girls’ sexuality is the driving force of the plot, Staggerlee’s identity as a child of a black father and white mother is also important to the story. The author frequently comments on the family members’ appearances, comparing and contrasting their features, just as most families do regardless of race. Staggerlee has her father’s lips and her mother’s eyes, but her hair is her own, a mixture of the two. She is happy with her appearance, but irritated that some people consider her either beautiful or ugly based solely on the fact that she is half white. Perhaps one of the reasons Staggerlee is not willing to comply with society’s norms and find a boyfriend, is that she has already endured prejudice from her classmates for having a white mother. Having learned how to face life as a child of an interracial marriage, the prospect of taking a girl out in public doesn’t seem as scary to her as it does to Trout.
Woodson allows these themes to take center stage in her novel, but she also flavors her novel with language typical of small, Southern towns. Casual phrases like, “Hey, Staggerlee, what you know good?,” give the reader a sense of place, along with the quiet rural setting. Other subtle choices, such as the main characters’ desire to dress differently than their peers, reflect their dissatisfaction with society’s rules. Ultimately, the separate paths Staggerlee and Trout take in high school allow the reader to anticipate the consequences of either choice.
This author has created another poignant coming of age story about teenagers facing prejudice as they try to understand and accept their own feelings. Even though Staggerlee and Trout do not announce their homosexual feelings, readers are given an insider’s look into the years leading up to such a decision. While Trout tries to escape by finding a boyfriend, Staggerlee looks forward to a time when she might openly date another girl.
Publishers Weekly comments, “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.”
School Library Journal writes, “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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Other books written by Jacqueline Woodson dealing with sexual identity:
FROM THE NOTEBOOKS OF MELANIN SUN. ISBN 0590458817
IF YOU COME SOFTLY. ISBN 0142406015
THE DEAR ONE. ISBN 0142501905
Submitted by Kim