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Sarah Davis finds herself in a tough position. She's a student at Cresselton, a posh Northern (read: all white) school with the very best art teachers. She loves her dorm. She loves getting the education she deserves. She does not love being treated like an exotic flower by girls who have never met a Black person before:
She was interesting, "beautiful," only because they had no idea what made her, charming only because they had no idea from where she came. And where they came from, though she glimpsed it […] she was never to enter. She hadn't the inclination or the proper ticket. (Trip.1.41)
Basically, Sarah doesn't properly fit in with the daughters of millionaires. But when Sarah gets news of her father's death, she feels sad to leave her home away from home. Because while she doesn't quite fit in at Cresselton, Sarah's not really a Georgia girl either.
Back home, Sarah has to confront the fact that home isn't really "home." It's a place where the expectations for her don't quite match up with her ambitions, even though there are people there who love her. And she runs right into this when she has her first meeting with her grandma, who wants to know if she's pregnant yet: "Her grandmother's notion of a successful granddaughter was a married one, pregnant the first year" (Trip.3.4).
But Sarah has different ideas about her life. She's chosen to go to Cresselton to develop her artistic talents. This may not be something her grandma or dad value, but she certainly does. Her brother gives her some good advice: don't waste energy worrying whether she fits in at the posh school. Just do it:
"You learn how to draw the face," he said, "then you learn how to paint me and how to make Grandpa up in stone. Then you can come home or go live in Paris, France. It'll be the same thing." (Trip.5.6)
Learn all the things, her bro says, and with that, Sarah finally understands that her talent demands education. Once she's acquired that, the world will be her home—but not before.
Sarah, of course, takes one more piece of wisdom from Georgia back to Cresselton with her. After winning a staring contest with a rat that took up residence under her father's coffin, she takes up a new mantra: "Stare the rat down, thought Sarah; and whether it disappears or not, I am a woman in the world" (Trip.6.9).
For Sarah, the rat doesn't have to be a rat. It can be anything that threatens to intimidate her, to take away her ambitions and chances for success. But it seems that Sarah's unexpected trip home has taught her a thing or two about standing on her own.
Sarah's dad is a complicated man. Sarah feels that she never really had a relationship with him, as illustrated by this moment when she finds a rat under her dad's casket: "She was alone with her father, as she had rarely been when he was alive. When he was alive she had avoided him" (Trip.2.2).
Sarah avoids her father for a couple of reasons. For one, she blames him for her mom's early death. Their lives as sharecroppers really took it out of her mother, who just went to bed one night and never woke up.
But Sarah doesn't take into account that her mother's death left a huge hole in her father's life as well. His grief consumes him, taking away his will to live: "On very bad days her father would not eat at all. At night he did not sleep" (Trip.2.6).
Somehow, Sarah doesn't see this grief as part of her father's love for her mother. But now that she's grown and staring at his corpse, she gets it.
Sarah also sees her father in the same way that author Richard Wright saw his: a man he didn't know and couldn't identify with. She feels emotionally abandoned by her dad. As she tells Pam, "I see him as a door that refused to open, a hand that was always closed. A fist" (Trip.1.38).
While Sarah's unexpected trip home rehabilitates the image of her dad, it's really her brother who becomes her "open door," the emotional support she could never get from her suffering parent.
Sarah describes her brother as a "radical preacher" who "deliver[s] [his] messages in person with [his] own body" (Trip.2.21), meaning that he's in the trenches, trying to bring about social change. Compared with him, Sarah feels like her "dabbling" in art and intellectual stuff has zero meaning.
But her brother doesn't see it that way at all. He treats Sarah with a kind of sweet indulgence, believing all the while that she is valuable and talented. He also sets her straight when she's thinking about giving up Cresselton: "You mean to tell me you spend weeks trying to draw one face, and you still wonder whether you're in the right place? You must be kidding!" (Trip.5.6).
This guy understands that Sarah doesn't quite fit in at Cresselton, but he knows that it would be a dangerous waste of her talent to stay at home—where she could never develop her talent or fulfill her ambitions. But he doesn't want to kick her out. When she's done learning all she needs to, he says, she can come home. Or not, if she wants.
In fact, it's her brother's wonderful openness that leads Sarah to give him a big compliment: "'You're the door to all my rooms,' she said. 'Don't ever close'" (Trip.5.8).
This is literally the sweetest moment in the book, so treasure it. Sarah knows that her brother is her connection to her family past, the thing that will ground her in her personal culture. But he's also inviting her to step out and take her chances. It's the best of both worlds.
Grandpa is the first person that Sarah wants to see when she returns home for her father's funeral. And aside from her brother, Grandpa is the other main man in her life. When she finally sees him in the church, for example, Sarah knows she can literally lean on him at that trying time: "When she sat down beside him […] he turned toward her and gently took her hand in his. Sarah briefly leaned her cheek against his shoulder and felt like a child again" (Trip.3.6).
It's Grandpa's steadiness and dignity that help Sarah move more confidently toward womanhood. For one, he's her rock (or one of them), and she knows that he will always support her in whatever she does. For another, he blows apart a stereotype she has in her mind about Black men—a stereotype that, unfortunately, her father did a lot to solidify.
Sarah had never been able to paint Black men because "she could not bear to trace defeat onto blank pages" (Trip.1.14). When she sees Grandpa standing at the side of her father's grave, she realizes she's made a mistake: "He did not seem to bend under the grief of burying a son. His back was straight, his eyes dry and clear. He was simply and solemnly heroic; a man who kept with pride his family's trust and his own grief" (Trip.4.2).
Sarah understands then that there's nothing inherently defeated in the face of a Black man; she'd only been looking at him through the eyes of white artists. Grandpa's strength and his confidence in her to "make [him] up in stone" (Trip.4.4) give Sarah the push she needs to take her place in the world.
Sarah Davis' granny is like pretty much every granny you've set eyes on: she wants Sarah to find a nice boy and start giving her some "Great-Grands." What's unconventional about Grandma? She doesn't much care if Sarah gets married first. And she likes to drink Three Sixes.
The lady has her priorities.
But as fond as Sarah is of Grandma, she doesn't connect with her the way she does with her brother and Grandpa. There's too much distance between them: "Should she mention how much she admired Giacometti's work? No, she decided. Even if her grandmother had heard of him, and Sarah was positive she had not, she would surely think his statues much too thin" (Trip.3.4).
It's the kind of gap that opens up between family members when one (like Sarah) steps outside the family culture to make a change in life. They soon realize they just don't have much in common, even if the affection is still there.