Neighbors by Diane Oliver, 1966
The magic trick:
Highlighting the painful, racist irony by using a framing device
“Neighbors” is a simply-told story about complex relationships between races, family and neighbors. We see it all play out through the eyes of a young woman, Ellie, and I was most interested in the way her life is contrasted – albeit briefly – to that of her peer, Saraline. Ellie bears a great burden, along with her brother and family, while Saraline is free to enjoy the normal pastimes of youth; staying out late with boys. Showing absolutely no awareness of her friend’s sacrifice, Saraline asks Ellie to deliver the message to her uncle about working late so that she can spend time with her boyfriend. It’s a small favor to ask, and a very small portion of the story, but it stands as a meaningful and intensely personal detail among Ellie’s struggle for a civil-rights breakthrough. And that’s quite a trick on Oliver’s part.
She walked past the main shopping district up to Tanner’s where Saraline was standing in the window peeling oranges. Everything in the shop was painted orange and green and Ellie couldn’t help thinking that poor Saraline looked out of place. She stopped to wave to her friend who pointed the knife to her watch and then to her boyfriend standing in the rear of the shop. Ellie nodded that she understood. She knew Sara wanted her to tell her grandfather that she had to work late again. Neither one of them could figure out why he didn’t like Charlie. Saraline had finished high school three years ahead of her and it was time for her to be getting married. Ellie watched as her friend stopped peeling the orange long enough to cross her fingers. She nodded again but she was afraid all the crossed fingers in the world wouldn’t stop the trouble tomorrow.