Umrigar, Thrity. “Everybody’s Son”

ISBN: 978-0-06-269742-4

“Know Thyself”

Everybody’s Son is about the coming of age of a young protagonist. Don’t be fooled- this book is not like other Bildungsromans. While the main character is a misfit, an orphan of sorts- he is not the one telling the story.  In fact, most of the important characters are not given a voice and yet, somehow Thrity Umrigar manages to keep her readers engaged!

In the 1990s, a nine-year-old boy, Anton, breaks out of his locked apartment in search of his “crackhead” mother. He is separated from Juanita, placed into foster care with a privileged family who give him a foundation to build his life and follow their footsteps.  While his family can give him all that he could possibly dream of, they are not able to give him a sense of belonging- a sense of “Self”. Anton strives to be exactly like his father.

It appears Umrigar denies him a voice due to his lack of identity- lack of “self”.  Yet, what is the excuse for not giving the mothers a voice? What is the logic behind dismissing Delores’s concerns? What is the reasoning behind keeping Juanita in the background? Can we not have vocal women in books?  (Don’t you even think of bringing up Carine!)

Instead, Anton’s story is told by his “hero”- his rescuer- his foster father- David. David controls the narrative by amplifying Anton’s successes- how he learns to ski, to swim, read and write, go to Harvard and become an Attorney General; David minimizes any positives in Anton’s past life. He brushes aside his encounter with Juanita- he minimizes the fact that “both of them united by their love and concern for the boy.” He flat-out refuses to see Juanita as a caring mother. David justifies his manipulative ways of taking Anton away from his biological mother by Anton’s successes. None of which would have been possible, if Anton stayed with that “crackhead” in the “projects”. Anton becomes David’s project- he builds the boy up for success- and gives him his own last name- almost like a stamp to prove that he belongs to him.

Anton feels like a guest in his own home- and throughout his life, he works hard at pleasing his foster parents. When he first arrives at his new “home” he is well mannered- (a salute to his mother). He anticipates being reunited with Juanita- but his hopes are crushed by David’s actions. David, uses his power to keep him in his family- almost as a replacement for the son-James- he lost- almost like a gift for his wife. Anton thrives in his family’s footsteps and becomes an Attorney General- making the last name he holds shine even brighter. From an outsider’s perspective- and from David’s perspective- this seems like a happy tale. David is the hero and the wonderful husband. He made this young neglected black kid a superstar and gave his wife a son she could mother. Only problem is- did he really ask?

Throughout the book, David doesn’t understand why Delores isn’t thrilled at the extended sentencing he’s managed to give Juanita, he doesn’t understand why she gets angry when he says that Juanita has agreed to give up custody, he doesn’t understand why Anton keeps searching for his mother- As a reader I do. I am angered when he kicked Juanita while she was down; was fuming when he got the justice system to rob her of her one joy in life- her son; I cried with Delores when Juanita was manipulated into giving Anton up; I struggled with Anton when his identity was questioned by his college girlfriend- Carine.

Yes, Anton lives with an identity crisis- as a biracial character, as a black human being living in a white world- as an adopted child. He keeps everything suppressed- but he is unable to suppress his senses. When he goes to Georgia for the first time, he recognizes the smells, the tastes- and his language reverts to its authentic self. He is able to hear his inner song and feel the rhythm of his life. He feels as though this is where he belongs.

Anton accepts his own identity amid this chaotic awakening- and sees how he is the bridge. He is the bridge between two worlds- two worlds that must meet at some point of his life.  Anton acknowledges how David has silenced both of his mothers- acknowledges that their story wasn’t told. He wants to know Delores’ story- he is eager to learn Juanita’s story- he is eager to free all the suppressed voices and hear them! He chooses to collide both black and white families- but will the love all his parents feel for him be enough to accept this identity? We will never know.

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