ALAN v27n1 - Individual Choice and Family Loyalty: Suzanne Fisher Staples' Protagonists' Come of Age

Volume 27, Number 1
Fall 1999

Individual Choice and Family Loyalty:
Suzanne Fisher Staples' Protagonists Come of Age

by Jinx Stapleton Watson

"I . . .feel like a child struggling to know what it is to be grown" (Shabanu, 108).

According to developmental psychology, most young children seem quite happy to take their parents' lead in how they view the world. But, as they gain in age and life experiences, many young people begin to consider their own and others' values. The notion of "coming of age" alludes to the struggle in which a young person moves from enjoying the simple pleasures of childhood to engaging in a world full of complex human issues. In testing their emerging maturity, teens oftentimes question deeply-held family beliefs. A teen's challenge to the family culture may range from passivity to hostility to rage. Such conflicts create standard material for plot and theme in literature. For centuries, protagonists have battled the establishment, the status quo. For the new order to come into being, the old order must be challenged and perhaps, even dismantled. The literary blueprint of Greek heroes offers one mythic standard for coming of age: killing off the father or father-figure. And so, among others who both inadvertently and overtly killed the old order, Perseus killed Acrisius, Theseus killed Aegeus. But what of the mortal ordinary teen, struggling to achieve a separate identity? How do concepts of individual choice align with notions of duty to family and culture?

Suzanne Fisher Staples' literary protagonists wrestle with developing themselves, while yielding to the culture which imbues them with the whisper of inevitability. Staples creates Shabanu in Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind (1989) and in Haveli (1993), its sequel. She develops Buck Smith in Dangerous Skies (1996). As the protagonists enter their teenage years, they find themselves thinking quite differently from their loving families. While struggling to understand their parents' values, they develop their own conscience and opinions which contrast with those of their elders. Each moves along a temperate continuum of resistance to the family culture; each wrestles with levels of frustration before reaching a peace of mind. The ways in which Shabanu and Buck shape their own moral values show how individual choice and family loyalty create twin tensions in the coming of age experience. But cast within their own particular cultures, Shabanu and Buck cannot nullify pervading norms and customs. Thus, their individual trials hint of inevitable resolutions.

Portraits of Shabanu and Buck: Resemblances

Though the particular conflicts mirror their own cultures, Shabanu of Pakistan and Buck, of the United States, share similarities. The Cholistan Desert of the 1990s and the Eastern Shore marshlands of the same decade seem to offer such different settings, yet each is integral to the protagonists' conflicts. Shabanu and Buck both feel alone in figuring out their impending adult worlds. Both find one significant adult who will listen to their hearts but who also offers warnings and wisdom. And both feel the tensions between choosing to honor their conscience yet respecting their family's beliefs and customs. Yet throughout, the threads of inevitability, seen embedded in age-old customs, dominate the informal and formal stages in their growing up.

Feeling Alone

Using the first person voice of eleven year-old Shabanu (Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind) and a third person limited omniscient point of view to reveal her as an eighteen year-old in Haveli, Suzanne Fisher Staples explores issues of growing up within a contemporary Pakistani nomadic culture. Shabanu loves her home in the Cholistan Desert settlements, understanding her family's frequent moves to follow the water. With no sons to help him, Shabanu's father teaches her to care for and train their camel herd. She gains independence with these tasks and claims, "I have no patience with housework . . .I can't abide anything that keeps me from the animals, from running free and climbing thorn trees," (Shabanu 29). And it is her knowledge and skill of the hard physical work that sanctions her to disagree, contest, and even disobey her father. The tensions between feeling strong and independent yet being perceived as still a child within the sanctuary of a family offer Shabanu the conflict with which she wrestles. She longs to put off talk of her impending arranged marriage and resists changes in her role as she moves from child to teen. Her father, the patriarch, looms large in her beginning questioning and she begins to appear as an upstart in his eyes. Her mother warns, "Shabanu, you are wild as the wind. You must learn to obey. Otherwise . . .I am afraid for you," (Shabanu 28). Shabanu feels both loved and shackled by her parents' expectations for "Marriages were never made without thought of expediency," (Haveli 16). As she queries the very customs of women and marriage which generations of her family have abided by for centuries, she feels alone.

In pondering the potential sale of her beloved camel, Guluband, she realizes she cannot save him for she has no money, and knows nobody outside her family: "I have no choice but to obey Dadi . . .I know I must remain in Dadi's good graces Ð it's my only hope" (56). With the inevitable sale of Guluband, at a price which will offer both Shabanu and her older sister a dowry worthy of respect among families, Shabanu enters a new stage:

I feel strangely normal. I am not angry. I see everything clearly, as if I am awake for the first time in a long while . . . But at the center of my self is an aching hole. With Guluband, my joy, my freedom, all of who I am has gone. I wonder if I will ever take pleasure in anything again. (63)

The balance of trying to make sense of the family's good fortune alongside feelings of profound loss, offers Shabanu her first elusive test in being dutiful to her family while remaining true to herself. In many ways, she feels betrayed by the father who has loved her, indulged her, taught her so much. In other ways, by trying to understand the two worlds, she experiences deep loneliness and lack of confidence.

Buck Smith, in Dangerous Skies, feels alone in his Eastern Shore, Virginia community, when his closest childhood friend, Tunes, is implicated in a murder. Written as a retrospective first person narrative, five years after he challenges his community, we see Buck's developing beliefs in justice and racial equality, and his understanding of love and duty to a family who thinks differently. Buck's mother has raised him and Tunes, a "motherless child" who is an African-American female, as playmates on the Smith property on the Eastern Shore. Life seems orderly and peaceful for the Buck's family and for Tunes and her dad, Kneebone. But as Buck's twelfth spring comes into view, the season of the "dangerous skies" for fishing, he notices a distinct change in the way folks treat him when he's with Tunes, who's a maturing African-American girl. "Everybody was more interested in where Tunes and me had been. I mean, where had we been ? -- not where had we been fishing" ( Dangerous Skies 9).

Discovering the body of Jorge, manager of the migrant workers, floating in their fishing creek, Buck and Tunes bestow a mystery on the pillars of the community. And Jumbo Beauregard Rawlin, one of the pillars, is a suspect, at least in the minds of Buck and Tunes. But Jumbo uses all his social power to implicate Tunes as the scapegoat for the murder. The White adults sympathize with Jumbo, but Buck is sure he is guilty. "How could my father who was so thoughtful and so sure of himself, be so wrong?" (52). And it is in trying to make his case known both to his own father and to the sheriff that Buck realizes he is in direct conflict with the community's values about truth and justice. In arguing his case, Buck uses all his family teachings about right from wrong. But Buck learns, "When it came to right and wrong, things that made sense for me and my family were different for Tunes and Kneebone and other Black Folk,"(106). Unwilling to give up trying to reconcile his viewpoint with his family, Buck " . . . intended to keep arguing the point way past knowing it was fruitless." (120). With Tunes so vulnerable and now, so wary for her safety, Buck has to "buck" the system on his own. "I felt so alone. As long as I could remember, Dad and Kneebone had known all the answers to anything that troubled Tunes and me," (153).

In questioning their culture, these two protagonists in their distinct worlds find themselves unexpectedly and profoundly alone. They feel surprised at the perceived abandonment by family and community who has cared so much for them. What previously felt like love and care now appears as unquestioned, unconscious allegiance to codes which don't match their parents' earlier teachings. Luckily for each, one significant adult helps sort out the confusion.

Significant Adults and Their Wisdom

For both Shabanu and Buck, loneliness is mitigated by a warm and caring relative. Shabanu enjoys the visits of her exotic, single aunt Sharma who has left her husband's cruelty and now lives with her daughter on their own in the desert. Most likely perceived as a "witch" by the prevailing religious and social customs, Sharma ignores taunts and questions, visiting her sister's family to impart wisdom to Shabanu. In anticipating Shabanu's marriage to a wealthy landowner, forty-two years her senior, Sharma advises her in elusive aphorisms: "Duty is not difficult when there's no alternative," (Haveli 29) and "You must take control of events before they take control of you," (79). Shabanu follows her advice, finding a way to honor and ensure her family's future in such a fragile society, while seeking opportunities to expand her own sense of self. She follows the customs by marrying to maintain the family honor. Yet later, married, we see Shabanu negotiating with her husband for reading lessons for her and her daughter, Mumtaz. Spirited and independent as a child, Shabanu remains lively and retains a sense of independence as an adult, within the confines of her prescribed roles as married woman to a wealthy landowner. Shabanu remembers Sharma's counsel, "No matter what happens, you have you. That is the important thing. And as long as you have you, there is always a choice," (Shabanu 225).

Buck Smith's "Gran" offers him silent understanding and love as Buck becomes embroiled with the mystery of the murdered Jorge. She speaks infrequently, most typically to contest Buck's mom whom he believes " . . . loves us, but sometimes she doesn't quite rise to the occasion," (Dangerous Skies 218). Gran's messages come as homilies, "Messy hair doesn't matter, long's what's inside is straight," (93), a warning about truthfulness. Buck Smith had " . . . never not told the truth before . . . (for) the truth was a big issue in our family," (45). But he struggles to protect Tunes, honoring his promise not to tell the sheriff that she was with him when they discovered the floating body. "Tunes always went to great lengths to avoid trouble . . . As low-key a character as she was, she was always afraid attention would focus on her and she'd do anything to avoid that," (27). Buck grapples with remaining loyal to Tunes and telling his Dad and the sheriff every detail. His Dad's forewarning, "You got to learn, Buck, you can't do something about everything that seems unfair," (104) creates conflict for Buck as he questions his parents' allegiance to Jumbo as a pillar of the community and to the sheriff as champion of justice.

Gran's voice appears as counterpoint to what Buck perceives as his parents' lack of courage:

It's awful hard to see your own mama and daddy being wrong about something important . . . (but) they're human, child. . .you've got to forgive them. You've got to learn that people make mistakes and think wrong even with the best of intentions. (130)

And, in time, Buck learns to forgive. Buck forgives his father, who manages to remember his family duty to Tunes and Kneebone, by procuring a good lawyer for Tunes' court defense. Buck's self-proclaimed righteousness and optimism to seek justice for Tunes dissipates as the community curbs the process of justice by believing Jumbo's information more than Tunes'. He loses the " . . . notion that there was magic in the world. I guess you could say I'd lost my childhood," (228). Nevertheless, after the trial and Tunes' departure from the Shore, to the city, Buck plans to attend college, hoping to return to the Shore, to the farm. Having learned that nature in the world holds cycles, " . . . by some turns beautiful and miraculous, by others senseless and destructive," (230), Buck Smith remembers his times with Tunes on the Bay as the " . . . most important thing about my life," (231).

Honoring Conscience and Respecting Traditions:
Inevitability Reigns

Lawrence Kohlberg (1981) suggests several stages of moral development for human beings. Not aligned with chronological ages, many never arrive at the most advanced, a stage of ethical and just behavior for the good of all people, if even against the civil law of the land. Witness Gandhi and Martin Luther King in their work for civil rights. Each endured years of harassment, jail and eventually, assassination for his beliefs which ran counter to his culture's. It is a rare person, often of heroic stature, who assumes such responsibility. But what again, of ordinary mortal teens? Both Shabanu and Buck reflect their best efforts at questioning their worlds yet moving within them. Implicit with the stage of adolescence is a search for identity (Erikson, 1964) . Who better to compare and contrast oneself than with one's family members? And so, the parents of teens become the measure, the standard, perhaps the target, for teens' weaving of old and new beliefs. Parents and other adults must endure, out of love, the challenge to values which young people bring to their established world.

Yet the embrace of culture both protects and stymies new efforts of thinking. Age-old customs perpetuated by the law, society, religion, holidays, and even climate offer institutionalized resistance to those seeking new forms, new values. Thus, the shadow of inevitability overwhelms best intentions as young people seek new ways. Shabanu had to marry in her society or be shunned, penniless, and friendless in the unforgiving desert. Buck Smith had to abide by the sheriff's decision to prosecute Tunes for he had no defense but a "feeling" that Jumbo was the perpetrator. He had to let justice take its course, which it did in due time, but too late to save Tunes' reputation and their relationship. Adolescent men and women -- especially of different ethnicities or religions -- find it difficult to maintain platonic relationships as the community too often presumes and imagines sexual interests.

Both protagonists hear whispers of their destiny; their cultures foreshadow resolution to their dilemmas. However, young people, such as Shabanu and Buck, grow because they challenge the norm. Shabanu claims before her marriage, "I am small and strong with too much spirit, and I think too much. I am lonely and fearful, and I long for the days when I was free in the desert," (Staples, Shabanu 202). Yet we know that she cannot live, freely, in the desert. The days of that freedom were spent within the care of her parents, soon no longer to be offered. The shock of feeling the need to move on, to make way for the next stages can be accomplished with grace and dignity or with shuddering forces. Shabanu and Buck weigh options and work within their cultures. Readers see Shabanu living with hope for her and her daughter in their rich but prescribed desert culture. They sense that Buck has grown up with deep love for both people and nature in his close-knit community on the Eastern Shore where it is impossible to keep a secret. Each has struggled, faltered, but regained balance while grieving for lost childhoods and embracing new lives as adults. Despite the obvious external differences in the setting of these novels, Suzanne Fisher Staples has created two coming of age protagonists who successfully craft new identities and learn to compromise with their communities as they negotiate for acceptance and affirmation.

Books Cited

Erikson, Erik. Childhood and Society. New York: Norton, 1964.

Kohlberg, Lawrence. The Philosophy of moral development: Moral stages and the idea of justice. San Francisco: Harper& Row, 1981.

Staples, Suzanne Fisher. Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1989.

Staples, Suzanne Fisher. Haveli. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1993.

Staples, Suzanne Fisher. Dangerous Skies. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996.

Jinx Stapleton Watson is an Assistant Professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee. She can be emailed at this address:

Copyright 1999. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.

Reference Citation: Watson, Jinx Stapleton. (1999). Individual choice and family loyalty: Suzanne Fisher Staples' protagonists come of age. The ALAN Review, Volume 27, Number 1, pp. 25-28.