Saturday, October 27, 2007

"On Borrowed Wings"

Chandra Prasad has written several books, including Death of a Circus, which Tom Perrotta says is “narrated with Dickensian verve, a keen eye for historical detail, and lots of heart.” She is the originator and editor of — as well as a contributor to — Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience, which was published to international acclaim by W.W. Norton.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, On Borrowed Wings, and reported the following:
Page 69 of On Borrowed Wings touches upon major themes in the novel and also foreshadows a significant plot point. Here, the protagonist, Charles Pietra, is investigating his new quarters upon arriving to Yale University in 1936 as a freshman. His immediate concern is the lavatory. Most freshmen of any era would consider the condition of the lavatory relatively low on their list of cares. But page 69 reminds the reader that Charles is no ordinary incoming student. His priorities are completely different because he is, in fact, not the person he claims to be. Charles is actually a seventeen-year-old girl named Adele. She is a quarryman’s daughter who has resolved to resist the poverty and restrictions of her past by enrolling at Yale as a boy. Her success will pivot entirely upon believable masquerade. Thus, the lavatory, with its lack of privacy, is worrisome territory.

Walking past several urinals and one toilet, I’d been disappointed to see no bathtub, but relieved that at least the shower stalls were separate. Before arriving to campus I’d fretted about all the obstacles before me. None seemed riskier than a daily bath.

Mother had said, “There are ways to wash yourself outside of a lavatory, Adele,” and told me to get better acquainted with a bowl of water and a sponge. Granted, this was a logical solution—to wash in my room, a locked door between my body and curious eyes. But I would miss my daily soak terribly, so much so that I resolved, silently, to disregard Mother’s advice and add bathing to the growing list of perils that I was willing to brave, even if it meant tip-toeing into the lavatory at three in the morning.”

A bit later, Adele takes a look at her new room while in the company of another freshman, a wan, bespectacled boy who will soon become her friend. Here, too, the things Adele notices speak to her unusual situation and background.

“Are you coming or not?” Harry asked me. I’d been inspecting my mattress, which was thin and slightly soiled.

“Pietra, are you listening to me? I asked if you wanted to see my room. To compare.”

“Oh? Sure, that would be swell,” I answered, smoothing the bed sheets I’d laundered myself. I’d used too much starch and the cotton was stiff as paper.

Though she has trained herself to speak and act like a male, Adele can’t quite shed her old life. Having worked as a laundress until now, she is persistently aware of things like soap, starch, and bleach. Previously, she’d spent her hours scrubbing and rinsing the clothes of the “Cottagers,” wealthy vacationers who inhabited the mansions along her coastal Connecticut town. Now she is supposed to think and behave like a Cottager, or someone of the same rarified social class. This feat will require the constant squelching of old habits.

I followed Harry to his room, which faced the hustle-bustle of Old Campus. Taking a seat, I watched him unpack. I was practically finished with my own room anyhow. There hadn’t been much to put away. I’d unpacked my girl’s clothes first, giving them temporary refuge in the bottom drawer of my desk, underneath a thin blanket. I was already thinking of how I’d need to stow them elsewhere eventually, somewhere safe, but I’d worry about that later.

This, the last paragraph of Page 69, has Adele hiding her old clothes, the visible vestiges of her history. Further ahead, Adele will get in trouble for not using a more discreet location. When I wrote this paragraph, I thought about Scarlett O'Hara, the charming, indomitable heroine of Gone with the Wind. Adele decides to “worry about that later,” and Scarlett makes similar declarations whenever she faces difficulty: “I'll think about that tomorrow” or “tomorrow is another day.” Like Scarlett, Adele is both unexpectedly resilient and a quick study. Both heroines maneuver around immediate obstacles with remarkable pluck, but don’t anticipate the long-term consequences of their actions.
Read an excerpt from On Borrowed Wings, and learn more about the book at the publisher’s website.

Visit Chandra Prasad's website.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue