Book review

The Friends by Rosa Guy (1973)

Everyone needs a friend. Phyllisia needs one when she first comes from the West Indies to live in New York. She can't pick and choose, though. She's an outsider. No one is very keen to befriend her. In fact they soon start to bully her because she's different.

She has other troubles too. Her father is loud-mouthed and overbearing. Her mother is sick, dying. Her sister, Ruby, is sixteen and pre-occupied with herself. Phyllisia is fourteen and would like a little freedom, but it is all very different from The Island where she lived before.

It's difficult to see exactly what Phyllisia has against Edith. Edith is the one girl who is prepared to befriend Phyllisia:

I did not like her. Edith always came to school with her clothes unpressed, her stockings bagging about her legs with hig holes, which she tried to hide by pulling them into her shoes but which kept slipping up, on each heel, to expose a round, brown circle of dry skin the size of a quarter. Of course there were many children in this class that were untidy and whom I did not like. Some were tough. So tough that I was afraid of them. But at least they did not have to sit right across the aisle from me. Nor did they try to be friendly as Edith did - whenever she happened to come to school.

The girls do form a tentative friendship, really out of necessity on Phyllisia's part. It is the streetwise Edith who protects her when she is bullied at school, and when they are caught up in a street riot during the long hot summer. But although Phyllisia visits Edith at her home, learning the truth about Edith's poverty and absences from school, Phyllisia can never bring herself to invite Edith back.

I suppose it's a culture clash - Edith is black American, brought up hard, shoplifting, on the streets of Harlem, and Phyllisia is black West Indian brought up to be obedient and hard-working, and abhore poverty. It is really a long time before Phyllisia will admit to herself that her own family is not as well off as she would like to imagine.

Actually, Phyllisia has to do a lot of emotional growing up. After the death of her mother, she fights a long battle of wills against her father before she finally returns to the unresolved business of her friendship with Edith.

How can she put things right with Edith? Phyllisia seeks Edith out at the very moment when Edith is really in desperate need of a friend. Can Phyllisia be a good friend, at last? You'll have to read the book.

What can I read next?

The Friends is the first part of a trilogy by Rosa Guy. The three titles in the trilogy are:

  • The Friends
  • Ruby
  • Edith Jackson

If you enjoy The Friends, you might like to look at this one by Gaye Hicyilmaz. It also deals with racial discrimination and the problems of being an outsider:

Another book which deals very powerfully with the problem of settling in to a new community is this one by Bernard Ashley:

There is a brilliant book which examines the nature of friendship between young women. Have a look at these by Virginia Euwer Wolff:

Also you could look at this one by Elizabeth Laird:

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