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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Tony Lindsay Presents... Ann Petry

There is phrase that appears on the dust jackets of select novels, a writer’s writer. The phrase seldom appears on literary novels mostly commercial works and in the biographies of popular writers, but to be a writer that writers admire one has to use literary devices on a master’s level in an effortless fashion, and yet . . . weave a plot with a captivating storyline.  Ann Petry is a writer’s writer. 

           In her novel, The Narrows, Petry’s use of literary devices moves a complicated plot twisted with deception, lust, and love easily forward. She does this while switching from third person narrative to first person with stealth like accuracy.  The story has two protagonists: an orphaned boy and a class conscious widow. Each of their lives could have been a novel within itself, but Petry combines them with skillfully placed flashbacks that do not interrupt or pause the story. While meshing her protagonists’ lives, she includes themes of classism, racism, sexism, and colorism.

The novel was written in 1953 during a time when America’s race relations were being redefined and challenged. However, during this period of racial unrest Petry writes about a Black community that comes together to raise a child. Lines of class and social etiquette are crossed for the benefit of a parentless child. Petry creates and unlikely band of heroes that come together in the growth and development of Lincoln Williams: a schizophrenic cook, a nearly homeless photographer, a madam, a gangster, a female undertaker, and a tree named The Hangman.  
The widow protagonist, Abigail Crunch takes in the child when her husband is alive, but his unforeseen death consumes her, and the boy is again orphaned. Petry writes the widow’s loss so deftly that a reader is left in grief after her husband dies. Link Williams, the orphan, finds refuge with the town’s underworld boss, Bill Hods.
The two, Hods and Crunch have been at odds since Abigail moved to The Narrows. Crunch looks down on Hods and all that make the livelihoods through elicit means. The two are oil and water, but Petry writes their acceptance of each other for the benefit Link with such craft that their cohesiveness seems like an everyday event. They come together with the others in The Narrow to make a man out of Lincoln Williams.     
Link graduates from college, develops a love of history, respects and love his elders, and has genuine concern for his fellow man; this concern for his fellows is what leads him into an interracial relationship that knocks him and The Narrows off of their paths. Petry personifies The Narrows complete with flaws, strengths, and emotions. When Link goes into a whirlwind so does the community that raised him.

The themes of racism and sexism are the two most poignant themes in the work. Blacks and women strive throughout the work for more; success is obtained, but failure looms attacking the successful and the striving. Petry’s women are not all week and neither are her Blacks all subservient. The reader leaves the work with a whole view of Link Williams and The Narrows; a view created by a writer’s writer, Ann Petry.
 Tony Lindsay is an award-winning author and adjunct professor at Chicago State University. His book ONE DEAD DOCTOR was chosen by Conversations Book Club as one of its Top 100 Books of 2012. Lindsay was named Conversations Author of the Year 2012-2013.  His new book EMOTIONAL DRIPPINGS is available now on He can be reached on Facebook at

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