Young Artist at a Crossroads
RITA DOVE won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1987 for her book "Thomas and Beulah." She was one of the youngest poets - and the second African-American (after Gwendolyn Brooks) - to receive the award. Currently a professor at the University of Virginia, Dove is the author of three other books of poetry and a story collection.Skip to next paragraph
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In her first novel, "Through the Ivory Gate," Dove tells the story of Virginia King, a young woman returning to her hometown of Akron, Ohio (Dove's own birthplace) for a short term as "Artist in Residence" at a local elementary school. Virginia has spent the last year touring the country with an experimental troupe called "Puppets & People," which fell apart under financial duress. Now, thanks to an Arts Council program, she's about to bring her skills as a puppeteer to a classroom of inner-city nine-yea r-olds.
Virginia, who's also an accomplished cellist and actress, has an intimate understanding of the ways in which children relate to puppets. Indeed, the reader's first glimpse of this novel's heroine is of a little girl whose heart is set on a brightly colored, black-skinned doll. But this pop-eyed, smiling, red-lipped toy, her grandmother sternly informs her, is an insult to black people. "Don't you know who that is? ... That's supposed to be you!" her grandmother tells her. Little Virginia looks in a mirr or: "Skin brown. Hair black. Eyes small and far apart. Unsmiling. I don't look like that - why she say it's supposed to be me?" the child wonders.
When her grandmother buys nine-year-old Virginia a politically correct "Negro" doll for her birthday, the child stubbornly rejects this rather plain-looking toy (its eyes don't open and close and it lacks "real" hair) and clings to her favorite white-skinned doll "with the long red hair and plump good looks of Brenda Starr." On one level, the little girl is unwittingly echoing society's endemic racism. But on another level, what she's really doing is choosing the doll that gives her the greater opportun ity to imagine the lives she might wish to lead.
Virginia's red-haired doll and alter-ego becomes "Penelope the Model, Penelope the God-Fearing Nurse, Penelope the Prize-Winning Journalist, Penelope the Girl Next Door, Penelope Had a Man and He Loved Her So." And Virginia - though she eventually discards Penelope - continues to discover, as she grows up, the many ways in which art and imagination can enrich her life. One of the most satisfying features of Dove's novel is her ability to convey Virginia's passion for the arts without making her seem pre tentious or sanctimonious.
An outstanding student who wins scholarships, Virginia more than fulfills her anxious family's expectations. Yet there is a tension between their wish for her to enter a "respectable" profession, like medicine, law, or teaching, and her own fascination with the performing arts: music, drama, dance, and acting. Where her parents see education as a path toward personal security and becoming a credit to the race, Virginia loves college "for its elusive goals, its fictive freedom."
Looking back, she views it as "refuge - not the womb every amateur pop psychologist liked to refer to, but a cave where you made a fire at the entrance, with twigs and sweet resinous pine cones, and then crouched behind it to gaze through the smoky scrim at the infinite stars."