A “braided narrative” offers multiple narrators’ voices within a novel, as opposed to a more streamlined, one POV approach. If you’ve read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, you were immersed in the minds of the daughters and the mother, creating a braided narrative. Conversely, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series are not braided narratives, as we only follow Guy Montag and Harry Potter, respectively. Sena Jeter Naslund’s Four Spirits also interweaves perspectives, and this work serves as a great example about why multiple narrators can be a wise choice when telling a story.
For those who haven’t read it or for those who simply need a refresher, Naslund’s Four Spirits is a depiction of one of the most violent struggles for equality in America’s history. The Civil Rights Movement, as we all know, was marked by horrific attacks and both covert and insidious undermining of black Americans. This particular novel takes place during a few key events, namely the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, during which four young girls were killed. This second occurrence is what lent the book its title and later guides the story to its conclusion. (There are a few spoilers below, in case this matters to you!)
Over the course of 560 pages, Naslund juggles nineteen (!) points of view, and I imagine she chose to do this to create a deeper, more textured examination of very sensitive content. Let’s look at a few of her characters:
- Stella: the main voice of the work, a white college-aged woman orphaned at the age of five due to a tornado. While sympathetic to the civil rights movement and towards black Americans, she at times lacks the bravery to take a stand.
- Cat: Stella’s friend, also white, who is physically disabled but is more willing to risk herself for the cause.
- Bobby Jones Ryder: a Ku Klux Klan member who makes bombs. He tries to blow up a college that is a meeting place for many of the characters and, upon failing, brutally rapes his wife, Lee.
- Christine: a fearless activist, at the end sacrificing her own life so that all children, not only her own, can experience freedom. A turbulent personality, she is harsh with Stella and Cat when they come to teach at the college and with black persons who did not participate in protests. She has an “angry, imperial manner” (Naslund 56).
- Gloria: a friend of Christine’s who has grown up in a more privileged environment. For example, she is an accomplished cellist, which speaks to the accessibility of such luxuries for her. It is not until later that she understands the need to raise her voice in advocacy, and after Christine’s passing, her true fire is revealed.
Did white people know anything about pity and terror? Could white women know anything beyond personal tragedy? Who you, she asked herself scornfully, to dismiss personal tragedy? Pain is pain. Who you, Gloria Callahan, but somebody who never hurt for nothing in your life but a pony…But now I hurt. I hurt for my people. (Naslund 426)
The attributes of these characters are nearly opposing. For instance, while Stella, Cat, and Bobby Jones are each white, their worldviews vary. Stella and Cat work for equality, and Bobby Jones Ryder is a violent racist. Further, Stella and Cat are contributing to the movement at different levels, with varying degrees of courage. Naslund’s use of multiple POVs allows the reader to pull back the curtain for a more authentic view than if one character alone had been followed.
In much the same way, Naslund’s creation of the various black characters in the book provides a more balanced telling. The contrast here between the experience of have and have not, as well as fiery activism and cautiousness, allows the characters to not all be painted with the same brush. If Naslund had chosen to follow only one or the other, the reader would be under a false impression that all individuals had a similar experience.
When we compare the characters’ experiences across the two races, the braided narrative really shows its power. We see the varying degrees of experience, involvement, bigotry, and acceptance. The brilliance in showing a variety of personalities and racial perspectives during this historical period cannot be understated. Naslund’s choice to create so many threads in the narrative provided a much richer experience for the reader than if she chose to only follow one individual throughout. Indeed the author’s decision to write in this way is why Four Spirits works and remains an important addition to the literature focused on the Civil Rights Movement.
As far as my personal application of the braided narrative, the novel I’ve been working on has three threads. Originally I was only following one character in a very linear fashion, and the piece feels more balanced than what I had originally intended. It’s been a rich (and fun!) experience exploring the multiple characters in depth.
So, what about you? How might using this structure work for, or against, your current work in progress? Have you read any good books lately that might have benefited from using interwoven perspectives?
I look forward to hearing from you!
Naslund, Sena Jeter. Four Spirits. New York: HarperCollins Publishing, Inc., 2003. Print.