Listen to the changing consciousness of a culture: It is the 1940s. We are in the home of a family of physicians, light-skinned African-Americans in Detroit. Lilly, the visiting granddaughter of the family has discovered "while eavesdropping on their housekeeper, Dorothy, and her friends that they were colored. The 'Wednesday girls,' as the maids were called, were playing cards and preparing food in Dorothy's carriage house. Lilly overheard one of them refer to the doctors as 'hankdie niggers.' Lilly asked her grandmother what a 'hankdie nigger' was.
" 'That's a Negro who thinks he's above other Negroes.'
" 'Are you a Negro?' she asked, sounding as innocent as baby Jesus. Her cousin, Amir, had put her into colored-consciousness training an hour after they'd met. Dorothy, who was black, was almost a pure Negro. Amir didn't know that Dorothy was as much Seminole-Creek-Choctaw as she was African. As a child in the South, Dorothy had learned not to talk about her Indian heritage. Possessing that blood made you a 'hankdie nigger' too."
This passage, from Nettie Jones' slim new novel, "Mischief Makers"--a sensuous, often poetic compression of America's history of color and class conflict and racial amalgamation--suggests a broadening ethnic consciousness among black writers, a willingness to acknowledge and affirm their complex ethnic and racial heritage in America.
The story begins with a cliche character: Raphael de Baptiste, young, beautiful with but a "chocolate drop" of Negro blood in her veins. This passing beauty leaves her comfortable Detroit home, her physician father and her black lover in the 1920s to become a "white" nurse in northern Michigan. There, she meets and falls in love with Mishe Masaube, a Chippewa Indian, with whom she has three daughters (of whom Lilly is one).
Raphael and Mishe are, in a word, hot. The sexual heat is portrayed with a straightforward earthiness that also teeters close to "Me Tarzan. You Jane," dialogue, punctuated with lines like: "Following her wishes he stroked her until she knew, he knew, that he'd seeded her." (Really, Ms. Jones.)
More often, the book has the sound of music: razor-sharp riffs, and measures of words--very short measures--that call to mind the sonorous wail of the blues from a tenor saxophone.
Mishe speaks when he and Raphael first meet:
" 'Been out in the woods yet with a man?' A tiny smile rested at the corner of his eyes.
" 'Never!' She got into this game with him. 'Never. Except for with my father. He loves trees and birds.'
" 'Would you? With an Indian?'
" 'Before I would anyone else. That's for sure. Long as you promise me that berries or flowers are all we're gonna hunt.' She felt naughty. Her eyes fastened upon his belt, thick and black. The buckle was bone."
Mishe proves to be as passionate a father as he is a husband. The portrayal of this Chippewa man's sacred connection to nature and the spiritual bonding with his children are among the most beautiful in the book. They converge in this passage about the birth of the couple's first child:
"All her life this child was called by both her names as if one were inseparable from the other, as if they were one sound: Blossom Rose. Never Blossom. Never Rose.
"The first mother she knew was Mother Earth. Mishe had taken her out of (the attendant's) arms the moment she was cleaned and bundled, and run outside with her. No one made any attempt to stop him as he held her up to the glow of the moonlight. She herself did not make a sound. (The doctor) watched as Mishe lay her down for a moment on the muddy earth. The little dance that he performed as he brought her back into the house amused no one, for it was not a dance of amusement. It was joyful. Mishe's eyes blazed as he reentered the bedroom with the now muddy bundle. He ripped the blanket off, exposing his naked baby. Slowing down, he placed her onto his wife's tit. As he watched, he himself undressed, got into bed with them. (The doctor) felt that if Mishe could have, he would have fed her himself."
Jones lingers long on nothing, leaving the reader tantalized and hungry for more. At times, this book seems almost a skeleton of a novel. The author's cut-to-the-bone prose style is emotionally effective--in this book as well as her first novel, "Fish Tales." But I felt short-changed on the story. I wanted to know more about the lives of her characters: Mishe, Raphael, their three daughters and secondary characters introduced with some fanfare but put to little use--a black collegiate football star invited to a society dance by his rich, white friend and a black chauffeur from the Carribean who mentions, to Mishe's confusion, that he has ancestors from France. If you a bring a 2,000-pound elephant onto the stage you better use him.