Part I: The Lost Twins (1968)

Chapter One

Summary: Chapter One

In April 1968, Lou LeBon, the owner of a diner called Lou’s Egg House, is shocked to see Desiree Vignes walking down Partridge Road holding the hand of dark-skinned seven or eight-year-old girl. Lou rushes to the diner to inform the customers of the sighting. The customers speculate whether or not the child belongs to Desiree, considering that the little girl is much darker than Desiree, and gossip about why Desiree has returned to Mallard, a small farm town Louisiana, after having been gone for fourteen years.  

In 1848 Alphonse Decuir, a light-skinned ex-slave, came up with the idea to build Mallard, a town for light-skinned Black people. After generations, the town’s population became lighter and lighter, until lightness itself became an obsession among the townspeople. In 1954 Decuir’s great-great-great-granddaughters, sixteen-year-old twins Desiree and Stella, lived with their mother, Adele, in the Decuir’s family home, “a white shotgun house.”

Desiree longed to leave Mallard, with dreams of moving to the city to become an actress. Stella, on the other hand, was studious and responsible, and she envisioned herself as a teacher at Mallard High. Desiree constantly complained that she felt trapped in Mallard, but was reminded by Stella that it would ruin their mother if they left. After the tenth grade, Adele removed the twins from school and put them to work as housekeepers to the Duponts, a wealthy, white family living in Opelousas. By the end of the summer, Stella finally agreed to leave Mallard and the twins made a plan to leave on Founder’s Day in August 1954 when the town would be preoccupied with the celebrations. 

After some time in New Orleans, Stella and Desiree became estranged. Stella left Desiree and actively began passing as a white person. Desiree waited six months for Stella to return before making the decision to leave New Orleans and move to D.C. where she got a job with the government as a fingerprint analyst. In D.C., Desiree rented out a basement apartment from the only other colored colleague in the fingerprinting department, Roberta. Eventually Desiree dated and married Sam Winston, an Ohio-born, dark-skinned attorney, whom she has a child with named Jude. Their marriage was loving and supportive at first, but deteriorated when Sam began mentally and physically assaulting Desiree. Following years of abuse, Desiree finally took Jude and escaped back to Mallard. 

The story moves forward to 1968 again. On her way to her mother’s house, Desiree anticipates her mother scolding her for marrying a dark-skinned man. While sitting in the kitchen with her mother, Desiree begins to have second thoughts about leaving Sam and wonders if it isn’t too late to go back to him. She tries to rationalize his abusive behavior as a result of the events that transpired the previous week: the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.; the tensions in the city spurred by the riots that erupted as a result; Desiree almost being mugged; Desiree’s reticence toward Sam after he suggested they have another child. Any of these events could have contributed to Sam’s abusive behavior. Adele snaps Desiree out of her thoughts and assures Desiree that she is safe now.  

That evening in a bar 100 miles southeast of Mallard, Big Ceel gives Early Jones, a bounty hunter, a job to find a woman who has run away from her husband. Early is surprised to learn that the woman is Desiree, a girl from his youth whom he had a crush on when he worked in Mallard one summer. 

Analysis: Chapter One

The opening chapter introduces the juxtaposition of light skin versus dark skin, and it sets up one of the book’s most prevalent themes: the societal tendency toward colorism. The story of Alphonse Decuir’s history presents a racial tension that exists not only throughout America but also within Black culture and Alphonse’s own family. His mother’s hatred of his lightness suggests that she did not love his white slaveowner father, and perhaps the union that produced her pregnancy was not consensual. Her attempts to darken Alphonse’s skin in the sun are at odds with his view of light skin as a virtue. Though he embraced his lightness, as a biracial child, Alphonse had little sense of belonging. White culture rejected him because of his Black heritage, and though Black culture may have embraced him, Alphonse chose to renounce it. As a result of his ostracization, Alphonse founds a town called Mallard, which champions colorism and is inhabited almost entirely by light-skinned Black people. His efforts to develop the town and whitewash Black culture create a subset of people in which colorism is inherent.

The twins’ relationship presents a complex exploration of the need for individualism. Throughout their childhoods and even in their estrangement, the Vignes twins are, in many ways, like a single person. Desiree knows Stella so well she can pretend to be her, and some people are unable to tell the two girls apart. But though they are visually alike, they are intrinsically very different. While Stella is practical, studious, and calm, Desiree is impulsive, bold, and restless. Their contrasting personalities create the sense that they are two halves of a whole, and their bond is a source of strength and solace. However, as they grow older, their connection can seem constrictive. When they separate, it is as if the force of the bond that held them together propels them apart with the same intensity. Desiree struggles to understand who she is without her twin, and she finds her way to autonomy by becoming a fingerprint analyst. Her study of fingerprints is an exploration of individual identity as she contends with the idea of herself as a separate entity from her sister.

Early Jones’s appearance introduces another prevalent theme of the novel: running away as a defense mechanism. Like other characters in the novel, Early protects himself from others by remaining closed off. He views attachments as dangerous, so he considers the towns he moves through and the people he meets as temporary and easily replaceable. Bennett implies that Early’s cool-headed nature can be attributed to his unwillingness to love or care about the people he encounters. His parents’ abandonment of him as a child left a permanent wound, and though Early casually dismisses his family when speaking to others, his thoughts reveal a hidden desire to belong. He has thwarted this desire by choosing a profession that allows him to travel and requires emotional distance. His comfort zone is challenged, however, when he’s presented with the opportunity to track down Desiree. In running away from Mallard, Desiree has also attempted to separate herself from her painful past. Her loneliness without her sister, however, has led her into an abusive marriage. Now on the run from her husband, Desiree’s return to her hometown is a fresh attempt to seek security by disappearing.