1959 is a novel by Thulani Davis that was published in 2001 by Grove Press. It is a first-person coming-of-age narrative that chronicles a young black girl named Willie Tarrant coping with adolescence and tensions over desegregation in Turner, Virginia. It’s also a fictional chronicle of how Willie’s community is transformed by the civil rights movement.
I was interested to read the novel because it speaks to an African-American experience in an era that I have little knowledge of. One of the things I wrestled with a bit creatively while I was writing my forthcoming novel The Girl With the Star-Stained Soul is the issue of description. I’m confident about how much description is desirable in the fiction genres I normally work in. But I hadn’t written a young adult novel before, and I hadn’t written much historical fiction.
So I started reading 1959 with an eye to how much and what kind of description Davis uses in her novel. And to my surprise, her descriptive prose isn’t especially immersive in many instances:
There really wasn’t anyplace a boy could take a girl. There was a colored bowling alley in an old Quonset hut, where boys set up the pins, and one segregated movie house. We could get take-out snacks at Shorty’s little drive-in place, or go to somebody’s house. If you were very careful about nobody seeing you, there were some places you could walk on the beach. These things didn’t matter much, since being with a boy in a car seemed clearly the most exciting thing you were going to do anyway. Going somewhere was gravy. We drove around to the quiet boulevard where the rich folks lived and the whole bay opened into the sky.
The description here is specific but almost totally without any detail. Davis relies on the reader having experiences with bowling alleys and drive-in restaurants to fill in those details on their own. We can easily imagine Willie and her friends getting hot dogs and sodas at Shorty’s, but we can’t really know that from the narrative. If you have been to a beach, you can imagine secluded spots the kids could go to take a walk, but if you’re a landlocked Midwesterner like me, that line comes off as a little less than evocative. We don’t know anything about what kind of car they’re driving around in; there’s no sensory grounding about the smell of the ashtray or whether anyone put fuzzy dice on the rearview mirror or if there were ketchup stains on the upholstery or anything. We know the rich folks lived on a boulevard, but what does any of that look like? Big white houses with shading oaks and three-car garages? Brick mansions with ivy, statuary and fountains? The book doesn’t tell us.
But, as the narrator says, these things don’t matter so much to the novel. The world building work in these pages is borne not by any lush, specific detail but through dialogue and the emotional details of the narrative. It’s a book about people, not things; snacks and cars and beaches can remain fairly generic background props that don’t really matter compared to the relationships in the foreground.
Seeing that Davis doesn’t bother with describing what record players in 1959 actually looked like or what teens on a date might have to eat should give other writers more confidence in the levels of description they’ve chosen for their own novels.