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Florence C. Ladd, director of Radcliffe's Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute, after a long and accomplished career in academia, has just begun a new phase of her life-- as a published novelist, with the work Sarah's Psalm. This remarkable 64-year-old woman began writing ten years ago fueled by the frustration that she had not been able to find herself in American literature. Her ten years of writing have soothed the frustration and resulted in a work that is tightly bound to her own life experience in what Ladd describes as a "geo-biographical" novel that tells the story of a fictional black woman, Sarah Stewart.
Stewart, much like Ladd, was born and raised in a traditional middle class, African-American family in Washington D.C. The reader first meets Stewart in the spring of 1963 as the enviable picture of success. She is a 25-year-old graduate student at Harvard and is married to her handsome highschool sweetheart, Lincoln, a graduate student at MIT consumed by the civil rights movement. Friends and family members look at the couple with pride and exclaim, "You two look just like magazine models", but looks prove to be worth nothing.
The marriage predictably dissolves within the first twenty pages and Stewart quickly packs off to Senegal compelled by her lifetime obsession that she has always been "meant to exist elsewhere". Her excuse for the trip is dissertation research which requires her to interview and study with a Senegalese poet and activist, Ibrahim Mangane. Mangane, however, is not a purely educational pursuit, but rather an obsession and the embodiment of everything that Stewart wants. Happily married but infamous for his numerous affairs with young women, he is everything but the traditional young, stable and picture perfect man.
The novel spans a time frame of thirty years and watches Stewart grow through a variety of stages. She leaves her husband, promising career, parents and America the moment Mangane asks her to return. She is then consumed with Mangane, his work, his life and Senegalese politics. Throughout this time Stewart stuggles to find her niche and her happiness, always inspired by the adaptation of the 121st psalm: "I will cast mine eyes upon the ocean from whence cometh my help. May he cometh from Senegal, which is heaven and earth."
For the Harvard student, a great deal in this novel is familiar. Ladd captures the essence of the self-absorbed groping college life in key passages such as: "The apartment that we called 'home' was a place to store books and papers, share an occasional meal, play chess, scan the newspapers, watch television, make love in haste and detachment, then fitfully fall asleep." This idea of college as a place to rest while stuck in transit between childhood and adulthood certainly strikes a strong cord among students.
Still, Stewart is not a completely satisfying charcter. Ladd doesn't give enough insight or background for the reader to become familiar with her. The character is presented from a sterile distance, so that the reader has a vague idea of her, but little understanding. One of the most traumatic scenes, the moment that Stewart miscarries, is ended simply with the phrase "I had lost a part of myself". While this may be true, the reader needs more. What part of herself, and how did that feel? The reader is left to fill in the blanks.
An interesting background note about this novel is its own story. Ladd, as a trained psychologist, first set out to compile a collection of case studies so as to tell the stories of black women that she had me both in the United States and abroad. But, while in the midst of one interview in Senegal, the woman said that she did not wish to be interviewed. "She told me that what I imagined about her life was more interesting than her life--that it was not her story, but my story. So she pushed me toward fiction, and she freed me to incorporate some of myself". Ladd insists that the novel is a product of her imagination based in her own experience, and so, while not autobiographical, the novel strongly overlaps with her life.
Overlap is certainly the key to this novel. Overlap between Ladd, Stewart and the universal college experience is what gives Sarah's Psalm the interesting angles that snare the interest of the reader. Read the book and keep your eyes open for the author -- Ladd gives readings and presentations all around Cambridge, and can be found at the Bunting Institute.
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