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.

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."

Lacking the single-mindedness for a career in music and aware of the scarcity of theatre jobs, Virginia eagerly enters "the real world" after graduation. But the job she lands - secretary in a cement firm - is hardly her idea of what reality should be. In joining the experimental troupe of puppeteers, she recaptures her sense of joy and excitement. But the troupe is here today, gone tomorrow.

Returning to Akron with her Arts Council job, Virginia has ample opportunity to take stock of herself thus far and to ponder the direction she wants to take, as she returns to neighborhoods she once knew well and goes to visit two elderly relatives: her formidable maternal Grandma Evans, who tried to dictate her choice of dolls, and her father's older sister, the kindly, somewhat pathetic Aunt Carrie, who gave her the red-haired Penelope.

In Grandma Evans, Virginia confronts an important part of her heritage: her innate sense of reserve, her perfectionism, and her odd streak of primness.

Grandma Evans's archaic advice to her 20-something-year-old granddaughter includes such gems as "don't whistle," "don't laugh with your mouth wide open," "don't wear miniskirts," and "act like a lady." But, as she tells the story of her own courtship and marriage, the old woman wisely acknowledges, "There's a point when all this dignity and stuff get in the way of destiny."

From Aunt Carrie, Virginia learns a disturbing family secret, which nonetheless provides her with new insight into her parents' marriage and the reasons behind the family's sudden move to Arizona just as Virginia was entering adolescence.

While she is touching base with her past, a handsome prospect for the future turns up in the person of Terence Murray, the divorced father of one of the children in her class. Her grandmother's granddaughter in more ways than one, Virginia is both flattered and suspicious when he starts paying court to her. She knows all too well how easy it can be to fall in love and how hard to find the right man.

Dove skillfully interweaves Virginia's memories of the past with scenes from her present. She also develops a pattern of contrasts between the two regions where Virginia grew up: the Midwest with its comforting flat, green landscapes and changing seasons, and the sun-scorched desert of Arizona, where Virginia's father gamely tries to make his uprooted family feel at home.

Whether she is evoking the look of a landscape or depicting the nuances of a family quarrel, Dove sees with the keen eye of an artist and writes with the finely honed diction of a poet. In Virginia King, she has created a distinctive, highly individualized heroine: a young artist at a crossroads, trying to balance her desire for artistic expression with her need to earn a living, and her longing for love and her determination not to settle for less than a true soul mate.

Most of all, what Dove demonstrates in this first novel is a strong grasp of the complexities of human character and interpersonal relationships: the kind of informed and realistic understanding so essential in producing a believable and affecting novel. Readers can hope this will be the first of more to come.

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