Jadine Childs

A beautiful, Black, twenty-five-year-old orphan and one of the novel’s two protagonists. Jadine has eyes the color of mink and works as a model. She studied art history at the Sorbonne in Paris, an education paid for by Valerian Street. Men constantly pursue her, and sometimes Jadine feels confused about their attentions. Ondine and Sydney, who work for Valerian, helped raise Jadine, but Jadine does not feel a strong sense of family. She values art, culture, and cosmopolitan, urban life, but her relationship with Son causes her to question these values and lack of familial ties. Although Jadine is an independent thinker, she sometimes feels unsure about her thoughts or decisions.

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Jadine’s lover and the novel’s second protagonist. A very handsome Black man, Son arrives at L’Arbe de la Croix as a fugitive and immediately upsets the house’s staid way of life. He believes that white people and Black people are fundamentally different and cannot live together, and he feels a strong connection to the natural world. He is capable of great passion and loyalty, especially to those he loves specifically and to other Black people generally. But he can also be very violent: He accidentally killed his wife after catching her with another man and then spent time as a soldier. His criminal past means that he has several aliases; his real name is William Green.

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Valerian Street

A wealthy, retired candy manufacturer and owner of L’Arbe de la Croix. Valerian is seventy years old and white, and he employs all of the novel’s major Black characters except for Son. He is determined to enjoy his retirement; he particularly enjoys gardening and spending time in his greenhouse. Valerian sometimes fails to take things as seriously as he should, and he can be stubborn and mean. But the revelation that his wife, Margaret, abused their son, Michael, devastates Valerian. By the end of the novel, Valerian has turned from a strong-willed man of business into an invalid.

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Margaret Street

Valerian’s second wife and the mother of their son, Michael. Younger than Valerian by twenty years, Margaret was once known as the “Principal Beauty of Maine,” because she was a high school beauty queen. Much of her life has been defined by her attractive appearance, which includes red hair and lovely pink and white coloring. Very vain, Margaret seems to lack anything else to think about besides her looks. She has a cruel streak, which led her to abuse Michael when he was a young child. She hates the island and wants to return to the United States. When Valerian becomes incapacitated, she finds pleasure in taking care of him.


Valerian’s longtime butler, Ondine’s husband, and Jadine’s uncle. A self-described “Philadelphia Negro,” Sydney is very proud and conducts himself with a lot of dignity. He expects respect and distrusts Son. He sometimes talks back to Valerian but ultimately obeys his boss.


The Streets’ cook, Sydney’s wife, and Jadine’s aunt. Ondine is Black, very opinionated, and particularly scornful of Margaret. Jadine calls Ondine “Nanadine,” and sometimes she regards Ondine as a surrogate mother.

Gideon (also called Yardman)

The Black handyman at L’Arbe de la Croix. Valerian fires him and Thérèse for stealing apples. Son discovers his true name and much of his past history. Gideon lived in the United States for a long time, hoping to make his fortune, but failed to live up to his ambitions. His wife, Thérèse, tricked him into moving back to the island.


Gideon’s wife and the onetime laundress for the Streets. Thérèse is Black, passionate, and prejudiced against anyone not from the island, especially Americans. She particularly hates Ondine and Sydney. The Streets and the members of Jadine’s family call her Mary. Valerian fires her, along with Gideon, for stealing apples, which further deepens her hatred of Americans. She used to be a wet nurse for the white American babies on the island, but the invention of formula put her out of business and almost caused her to starve.

Michael Street

The son of Valerian and Margaret. Michael only appears in flashbacks, but other characters discuss him frequently. Valerian and Jadine fault Michael for “exoticizing” Black people, instead of treating them like ordinary human beings. But generally Michael is thought of as well intentioned and kind. He studies anthropology and performs a lot of community service.

Alma Estée

The daughter of Gideon and Thérèse. She sometimes helps at L’Arbe de la Croix. The American characters in the novel call her Mary, the same name they call her mother. After her parents are fired, she ends up working in the janitorial services of the island’s airport. She has questionable ideas about beauty and obsesses over finding the right wig.


Jadine’s rich, white boyfriend and would-be fiancé. He gives Jadine a very expensive and luxurious sealskin coat but fails to treat her very affectionately and seems not to respect her.

Dr. Michelin

A friend and confidante of Valerian’s. Dr. Michelin is a Frenchman exiled from Algeria.


A New York friend of Jadine’s. Dawn thinks Son is very handsome, and she offers Jadine and Son a place to stay when they are in New York.


One of Son’s closest childhood friends. Soldier irritates Jadine, but he nevertheless gives her a lot of unsolicited information about Son’s early life.


Soldier’s wife. Jadine finds her stupid and unsophisticated.


Son’s first wife. Son accidentally killed her while he was trying to punish her for her adultery.

Old Man

Son’s father. His real name is Franklin Green.


A friend of Son’s from Eloe. He gives Son and Jadine a ride when they first arrive in Florida.

Aunt Rosa

Son’s aunt. Jadine stays with her when she visits Florida. Aunt Rosa embodies Southern womanhood.


A childhood friend of Son’s.

Ernie Paul

A childhood friend of Son’s.

B. J. Bridges

A famous poet, and one of Michael’s favorite teachers. Margaret invites him to celebrate Christmas at L’Arbe de la Croix, but he fails to arrive.