THIS SIDE OF THE SKY
By Elyse Singleton
Blue Hen/Putnam. 326 pp. $24.95 Aman, a woman, Paris -- sounds like a recipe for romance, right? Okay, how about a poor black woman, a German prisoner of war and Jim Crow-era Mississippi? That combination sounds half-baked at best. Yet somehow Elyse Singleton stirs together these seemingly incompatible ingredients and comes up with a fully satisfying repast.
A lot happens in "This Side of the Sky" before Singleton liberates the star-crossed lovers and brings them together in the City of Light. For much of the novel, another relationship takes center stage, that of Lilian Mayfield and Myraleen Chadham, best friends in the suitably named Nadir, Miss.
Dark-skinned Lilian is smart and shy, the daughter of a hard-working oyster shucker who performs abortions on the side. Myraleen is a sassy handful and, in the lingo of the era, light, bright and damn near white. "This Side of the Sky" traces their friendship from 1917 to 2000.
In a few swift, sure strokes, Singleton establishes hot, dusty Nadir as a place to exit in a mad scramble.
"Nadir heat was a killing hand," she writes. "Like the town itself, it gave you every reason to run for your life but drained the energy you'd need for flight."
Even so, Lilian and Myraleen learn early to dream of breaking loose. They share, in Lilian's words, a "determination to escape a place where we'd been mismatched with our own lives." Their plan requires steering clear of romantic entanglements, making sure never to attach oneself "to a man with Mississippi strapped to his feet." In their view, that was "the same as jumping on a bus with no wheels."
Wounded by an abusive upbringing, Myraleen uses her venomous wit to keep would-be suitors at a distance. Lilian, on the other hand, is mostly ignored. She seems quite undisturbed that "most colored men in Nadir had a skin-tone cutoff point for women and wouldn't court anyone whose skin deepened into the regions of dark brown."
After graduating from high school, both women become domestic servants while nurturing visions of flight. As they toil in the house of a wealthy white family, Kellner Strauss labors nearby. An Oxford-trained psychiatrist and son of a well-connected Nazi, he was captured by U.S. forces when the U-boat on which he served as a medic was destroyed. His detainment in Mississippi includes work at a farm not far from Lilian's home.
A tentative friendship develops when Kellner saves Lilian from a local bully, and soon he becomes her tutor. Their mutual attraction is mutually startling, but it goes no further than a kiss before Kellner is transferred elsewhere. Shortly thereafter, Lilian and Myraleen finally make their move north.
Whereas many novelists choose a vast canvas on which to portray a story that spans societal shifts and includes such precipitous occurrences as world wars, Singleton displays no inclination to include much social reportage. She is a miniaturist instead, ably compressing the sprawl of history into tight, thoughtfully constructed sentences. In this fashion, she takes Lilian and Myraleen from a Philadelphia rooming house to Glasgow, London and Paris, all of which they see while serving in the Women's Army Corps.
Events that would seem best rendered in bold, bright colors -- Kellner's adventures on the U-boat, the bombing of Dresden, the London Blitz -- are instead painted in the dreamy, translucent washes of a watercolor painting. It's an oddly effective choice consistent with Lilian's own view of events. "Every generation thinks their time is the time and talks about the present as if it's some stable territory they can occupy indefinitely," she says. "Yet when we say now, by the time we get to the w sound, the n is in the past."
The heroines and the various characters with whom they interact are credibly drawn and given quirks and perspectives that seem to be theirs alone. This distinction extends to the language each uses. It makes perfect sense, for instance, when Lilian, no stranger to the kitchen, notices that Kellner's hair was "the color of lightly baked bread crust." Similarly, when she watches clouds that are "lumpy like full laundry bags," it seems an apt observation from a woman who used to spend her days washing other people's clothes.
While Lilian believes in the impermanence of history, she still longs for the permanence of true love. After two years in Philadelphia following the war, she has returned to Paris to study at the American University through the GI Bill. Myraleen remains behind in Philadelphia and eventually settles down with an honorable veteran who has pursued her for years.
Between classes and lonely sojourns in sidewalk cafes, Lilian continues to imagine a "perpetual moment" in which joy lasts forever. When her moment at last arrives, it is unveiled with a minimum of fuss. The fabled lights of Paris reveal Lilian and Kellner's adventure for what it is: a lovely story, lovingly told.