The House You Pass on the Way
(1997), a young adult novel by Jacqueline Woodson, tells the story of fourteen-year-old Evangeline (nicknamed Staggerlee) who lives in the fictional town of Sweet Gum, South Carolina. The novel details Staggerlee’s experiences one summer as she grapples with issues of racism and the discovery of her sexuality through a special friendship. In the author’s own words, the story is about “what it means to love someone—how painful and confusing that can be.” The novel was awarded the Lambda Literary Award for Children and Young Adults, which honors books that successfully affirm the importance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender stories in literature. The novel is short, approximately one hundred pages, and is recommended for ages twelve and older.
Staggerlee is the daughter of interracial parents in the mostly black town of Sweet Gum. Her mother is one of the three or four white women in the town. Staggerlee is described as a beautiful girl with an appearance highlighted by her parents’ racial differences; she feels resentful at the attention she receives for her mixed complexion. As a child, she defiantly gave herself her nickname after seeing her grandparents perform a song by that name on an old recording of the Ed Sullivan show. Her grandparents were famous during their lifetime for their sacrifices during the civil rights movements. In Sweet Gum, a statue commemorating their deaths in an anti-civil rights bomb attack honors them.
This dramatic history makes Staggerlee and her family local celebrities, which does not benefit an introverted teenage girl like Staggerlee. Being famous causes her to be an outcast at school since not only is she biracial and looks different, but also because her schoolmates assume she thinks she is better than them because of her elaborate past. The family is accustomed to being the subject of gossip.
Even within her family, Staggerlee feels different. There are four siblings, each with their own more outgoing personality. Her sister Dotty is specifically more popular and confident than her.
Staggerlee longs for friends and to feel like she belongs in her community. She also feels confusing sexual desires towards other girls. She remembers a kiss shared in grade school with her friend Hazel who ended the friendship soon afterward. This memory contributes to her alienation.
During the summer, Staggerlee’s adopted cousin comes to visit from a side of the family that had long ago been cut off after her parent’s marriage. The cousin, like Staggerlee, had made a nickname for herself, Trout. The two girls share the feeling that they are different than others. They form a close friendship and romance blossoms between them. This shared secret brings them both out of isolation. Trout is the more assertive and independent of the two, and her presence brings Staggerlee out of her insecure, introverted state. They both acknowledge that they might be gay and what that would entail for their life. They write in the sand of a nearby river, proclaiming a truth about themselves for the first time: "Staggerlee and Trout were here today. Maybe they will and maybe they won't be gay.” This statement emphasizes the author’s message that teens can pass through different stages before finding or defining themselves definitely as one thing or another.
After Trout leaves at the end of the summer, Staggerlee misses her friendship. Later, she is upset to learn that Trout has begun dating a boy, and further, disappointed to see Trout decide to lose her nickname, returning to her real name, Tyler, to impress the boy. Despite these negative feelings, Staggerlee takes the opportunity to reflect on herself, understanding that she is different from Trout. She knows she could never be like her and have feelings for a boy. She begins to look forward to the day when she is brave enough to proudly take another girl to a party and not feel ashamed.
A theme of self-discovery permeates the novel. Woodson’s personal history is reflected in the story. Her memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming
, which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature 2014, also dealt with issues of race and the struggle of facing one’s sexuality. Woodson spent the early part of her childhood in South Carolina, which led to her wanting to base The House You Pass on the Way
in a southern setting. Growing up, she was acutely aware of the divides that her race caused between her family and others. Similarly, in her writing, she often draws on the experience of discovering her own sexuality and what it was like coming out as a lesbian to her religious family.
The Library of Congress named her the National Ambassador for Young Children’s literature for 2018-2019. In this role, she serves underprivileged communities by traveling around the country and getting in touch with kids about the importance of reading as a tool for empowerment.