Finding My Place by Traci L. Jones

I graduated high school in 1975, the year in which this story takes place. So I loved all the cultural references to TV shows like Barney Miller and Sanford and Son, to songs like Monster Mash and Stairway to Heaven, and to political and social events and entities like the Black Panthers and maxi skirts and hippie communes. But the characters themselves eventually felt flat and unconvincing in spite of all the time period references and slang-sprinkled dialog.

Tiphanie Jayne Baker is the one who’s “finding her place” in a nearly all-white high school in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado. Her parents have made it in the business world–dad’s a banker and mom’s a real estate broker–so they are moving into the house to match the income, out of the predominantly black part of town and into the ritzy white suburbs. Tiphanie has to transfer to a new high school where there’s only one other black student, a boy named Bradley. At first, no one even speaks to Tiphanie or acknowledges her presence, but that situation changes as she makes friends with social outcast, Jackie Sue Webster, and then eventually others in the school begin to notice that Tiphanie is a real person and not just the token black girl.

Unfortunately, it’s at the point that Tiphanie is finally beginning to feel somewhat accepted by the kids at school, except for a couple of garden variety racist idiots, that the story of the friendship between Tiphanie and Jackie Sue takes a turn for the oversimplified and stereotypical. Stop here if you’re not in the mood for spoilers. Jackie Sue’s mom is a former beauty queen, unwed mother, dumb blonde, now alcoholic and abusive mess. Could one possibly impose any more poor white trash stereotypes onto one character? Oh, yeah, Jackie Sue and her mom live in a trailer park, of course.

At the beginning of the story Jackie Sue with her impressive vocabulary and her observational skills was an interesting character. Then she somehow turned into a cliche. Tiphanie, although she’s smart and witty, hovers on the edge of stereotype with her parents lecturing her about upholding the good image of the Afro-American race and her friends accusing her of becoming too white, an Oreo. But whereas Tiphanie feels almost real, and her parents kind of snooty but also believable, Jackie Sue and especially her mom are just a plot device for Tiphanie to learn from and for the reader to get the message that some white people have poverty-stricken, dysfunctional lives that are worse than the lives of upwardly mobile blacks.

Read for a taste of the seventies, if you want one, but not for the realistic characterization.

Other views:
The HappyNappyBookseller: “I really enjoyed Finding My Place. It was a quick, fun and entertaining read. Jones knows how to write a good story and great dialogue.”

The Fourth Musketeer: “In this novel, Traci Jones examines serious issues of prejudice with a terrific sense of humor–I laughed out loud at numerous places in the novel. She explores overt prejudice against blacks . . . but also more subtle types of prejudice.”

Bookish Blather: “As her friendship with Jackie Sue grows, Tiphanie finds herself wrestling with her values, and the values of her family. I loved reading about Tiphanie. She’s smart, funny and witty, and a compassionate person.”

And, again, I am in the minority. Try it if you’re interested and see what you think.

2 thoughts on “Finding My Place by Traci L. Jones

  1. I wish that this book had been set in the present. There is a huge lack of books about black students in the suburbs, or about black students who are struggling with the balance of maintaining their cultural identity. I bought it, because it has an important message that is hard to find, but I can see your point.

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