Summary: Chapter Four
Helga rides a train back towards Chicago. She is in an uncomfortably warm car with “others of her race.” She thinks about the argument she had with Dr. Anderson and realizes that she was rude. She thinks about her mother, an immigrant from Scandinavia. After Helga’s father left, her mother remarried out of necessity, to an unpleasant white man. Helga’s mother died when Helga was fifteen, and Helga was rescued by her Uncle Peter, who sent her to a Negro school. She was both happy and lonely there. Helga thinks of her conversation with James Vayle. She liked him but did not love him. With a ten-hour ride remaining, Helga manages to convince the conductor to let her rent a sleeping cabin, despite her race.
Summary: Chapter Five
Helga arrives in Chicago and thinks about how she has no home or friends in the city. She decides to stay at the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). She travels to her Uncle Peter’s home to surprise him. Helga is greeted rudely by an unfamiliar maid and told that Uncle Peter (Mr. Nilssen) is out, but Mrs. Nilssen is available. Helga did not know that her uncle had married. Mrs. Nilssen invites her in, but then tells her that Peter Nilssen is not really her uncle, because Helga’s mother and father were not married. Mrs. Nilssen tells Helga to leave Peter alone and never to return. Helga runs away and becomes distraught. After Helga calms down, she wonders if she could find work at a library. When she walks into a racially mixed crowd, she feels “that she had come home.”
Analysis: Chapters Four–Five
These chapters address the challenges of being mixed race as Helga travels from the small all-Black community of Naxos to the wider and diverse environment of Chicago, confronting the various obstacles faced by any young woman of mixed race in the 1920s. Because of her race, Helga is first forced to occupy a dirty and uncomfortable seat in a railroad car and then to pay double for a sleeping cabin. The fact that Helga automatically notes the precise skin color of her fellow passengers reveals a form of awareness that is not needed by white passengers, indicating that she needs to be always aware of her surroundings and her place in them. In Chicago, she has few choices of lodging because of her race. Further, the fact that her white uncle’s new wife denies the validity of Helga’s relationship with him and turns her away reveals a specific form of shame-based racism that mixed-race people face from their white relatives. All these problems beset Helga simply because of her mixed-race background.
The cold, windy Chicago weather acts as both a literal threat to Helga’s welfare and a metaphor for her isolation. When she first arrives, she likes the cold because it emphasizes the distance she has come from Naxos in the South, but the discomfort it creates also foreshadows the cold reception she receives from Mrs. Nilssen. Helga’s response to Mrs. Nilssen’s rejection is also described with imagery of coldness, indicating that Helga is hardening herself against Mrs. Nilssen’s cruelty. After she leaves the Nilssens’ house late in the evening, the weather is much colder, symbolizing how Helga’s situation has deteriorated and that she is unprotected. On her way back to the YWCA, her feelings of numbness are a reaction both to the physical cold and to the emotional shock of being pushed outside of her family. In Chicago, Helga finds herself literally and figuratively out in the cold, floundering with the basics of physical survival and with no place to belong.