Esther by Jean Toomer, 1923
The magic trick:
Breaking the story into four sections, separated by different ages in Esther’s life
Poor Esther is trying to find her way in society as one who looks white but is considered black at a time when such categories were far more restrictive than they are today. The story format suits this search perfectly. Four sections separate the text into snippets from Esther’s life at different ages, 9, 16, 22 and finally 27. It allows the reader to traverse two decades of her life very quickly, and the theme of racial isolation hits home very obviously. And that’s quite a trick on Toomer’s part.
Esther sells lard and snuff and flour to vague black faces that drift in her store to ask for them. Her eyes hardly see the people to whom she gives change. Her body is lean and beaten. She rests listlessly against the counter, too weary to sit down.