Arnetta and Octavia, appear as the leaders of the group, and insist that the girls called one of their group a derogatory word which is the starting point of the conflict. Consequently, a confrontation rapidly takes place between the teams, but this quarrel turns awry when the African-American girls realize the white members of Troop are developmentally disabled and it becomes clear to the reader that Octavia and Arnetta probably make the accusation up. Nevertheless, the short narrative by Packer goes further than a simple camping conflict between rival teams. This story argues that when individuals have seen or experienced suffering for so long, in this case the African-American girls, they unintentionally react by becoming the agent of despair to others regardless guilt of innocence.

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Caught at this gawky early moment, Packer shows herself to be what she has to this point remained: a writer of great and imperfectly fulfilled promise. Sometime around , at Camp Crescendo— somewhere, we gather, in the vicinity of Atlanta—an all-black troop of Brownies encounters the all-white Troop How moving and convincing this is—that a group of African-American fourth graders would decide to contest the great powers by picking a fight against an unlikely and innocent enemy.

The heartbreaking twist: the white scouts are mentally disabled, and the girl identified as the name-caller is discovered to be mute. No slur was ever spoken. You know? It is a about becoming a writer. Like many important stories, it is itself about telling stories. Arnetta and Octavia, later the instigators of much of the action, are indistinguishable.

Margolin is vivid enough, huffing and puffing and leading with her bosom, but how does she differ from Mrs. Hedy, exactly? One is religious, the other has had an operation? Or does the religious one also have the operation? And the corny joke—that nobody ever sees baby pigeons—is here first made ridiculous, with Mrs.

Packer is also wrestling with a peculiar, difficult point of view—Snot, or Laurel, our first-person protagonist, is largely buried in these early pages. This will make perfect sense later, but here, early, as Packer uses Laurel to convey a great deal of information without using that information to also render Laurel as a character, the effect is baffling. This is a portrait of an individual, as seen by an individual, and the description is simple, sharp, and moving: Daphne hardly ever spoke, but when she did her voice was petite and tinkly, the voice one might expect from a shiny new earring.

Daphne has the advantage of being seen in isolation, of course, and in action. Unlike other troop members, she is also given the advantage of containing within herself a set of contrasting states: silent but her voice also tinkling, dressed in faded but also in fancy clothes, quiet and withdrawn but also the person honored in front of an audience. These contrasts make her vivid to us, and complicated.

Daphne is also a writer, which matters to our protagonist. In the portrait of Daphne there is nothing strained, no dumb jokes or outsize metaphors. She is the key to its meaning. The silence of the disabled girl accused of speaking it. The silence on the bus after the Brownies leave Camp Crescendo, insulted and humbled. And, of course, the silence of our narrator. Her only words, in fact, are those that effectively move the plot along.

Laurel is, in effect, the creator of the action. Even as the glorious last pages approach, the story continues to stall, falter, and fail. Stray strands of her hair were lit nearly transparent… She abided, bent. Then she began again, picking up leaves, wads of paper, the cotton fluff innards from a torn stuffed toy. She did it so methodically, so exquisitely, so humbly, she must have been trained. I thought of those dresses she wore, faded and old, yet so pressed and clean; I then saw the poverty in them, I then could imagine her mother, cleaning the houses of others, returning home, weary.

It is an excellent passage, once we get to it, and a crucial one. Laurel is struck by something unfamiliar, experiences empathy for Daphne, and finds herself imagining an unfamiliar life. Laurel is on her way not only to maturity but to a certain kind of maturity—a writerly kind. The recognition that Troop will be alone should be made to happen in the bathroom, not at the creek. And the story then takes a long time—far too long—to arrive at its climactic scene.

The girls return to the cabin and sing to Mrs. It takes a full three songs to dispel Mrs. Next we learn of Mrs. Margolin from the cabin. Left alone with the ineffective Mrs. Hedy, the Brownies are at last—many pages later—ready to head out through the darkened woods and confront their enemies, the girls of Troop And it is here, finally, with all the players in position, that the story begins to soar.

From this point to its conclusion, the story knows exactly what it is about, and it is about it continually. The story arises from the supposed utterance of a forbidden word. So it is only fitting that when Arnetta confronts Troop , it is the sound of the response that strikes Laurel. The girl sounded as though her tongue were caught in her mouth. A flash of genius crossed her face. They are delayed learners… Many of them just have special needs. They are not innocent victims.

They have made innocent victims of people even more helpless than they. Two days later, on the nearly silent bus ride home, Laurel sits beside Daphne. The journal is empty. Laurel is almost—but not quite—ready to begin her own story. I looked out the window, trying to decide what to write, searching for lines, but nothing could compare with the lines Daphne had written. The line replayed itself in my head, and I gave up trying to write.

What opens the door to language for Laurel? First: the Brownies themselves acknowledge the painful truth. Until now, no one has spoken explicitly of their second-class status. The words have been too painful to utter. But now they are necessary.

They are the truth that can no longer go unrecognized. She narrowed her eyes like a cat. I mean, like we were foreign or something. Like we were from China. I gathered my voice. And so language, and storytelling, begins to offer a means of understanding. Laurel, now newly named for us, and for herself, describes the altruism and dogmatic goodness of the Mennonites she and her father encountered in the mall. Some people are good and kind, or at least act in a good and kindly way.

No matter who you are, you will be tempted to be cruel. You are not made good just because someone is taking advantage of you. Instead, you make yourself good through the choices you make: to clean the bathroom, as Daphne does, or to paint a porch, as the Mennonites agree to do. You are empowered to enact your own goodness. Why not ask for a hundred bucks? I remembered the dark blue of their bonnets, the black of their shoes.

They painted the porch as though scrubbing a floor. Cruelty is always an option. Laurel finds her voice in order to say this. Discovering empathy for the Mennonites, whom her father has subjected, and discovering it for her father, too—and for herself, as one of those poor Brownies thrown in with Troop —Laurel has become a storyteller. It is, maybe, a sort of creation story for herself: maybe she sees herself in Laurel and Daphne both.

The pressure to produce can be daunting. Expectations are immense. Writing a novel under such scrutiny is very hard—novel writing requires solitude and a sense of being hidden away with your own world drawn up around your shoulders like a blanket. And life interferes: family, travel, teaching. As writers, we can only sympathize with such lengthy pauses—such long intakes of breath.

We can only empathize, and look forward to the next thing ZZ has to say.


A Writer Awakens: On ZZ Packer’s “Brownies”

At the camp, the African American Brownie troop of six young girls, from an inner city school, Woodrow Wilson Elementary, which is predominately racially segregated, as referenced to the only White student, Dennis at the school encounters the "invaders. A plan is developed when the African American Brownie troop girls learn and believe that one of the fourth grade girls from the White troop addressed them with a derogatory racial slur. Over a period of four days, the African American Brownie troop confirms their suspicions and plan a "lesson" for the other troop. Suggestions for the "lesson" include: "beating" the White girls up or placing "daddy-long-legs" in their sleeping bags. A Secret meeting is held to talk about the lesson, with the culmination of events ending in the "messy, with leaves and wads of chewing gum on the floor" camp bathroom The family "dressed in distinctive garb" does work for him without pay or a thank you.


ZZ Packer "Brownies"

The story is about a Brownie troop of fourth-grade African American girls from suburban Atlanta, Georgia, who go to summer camp. At the camp, they encounter a troop of white girls and believe that one of the white girls addressed them with a racial insult. The African American girls resolve to beat up the white girls. The African American girls discover that the situation is not as clear-cut as they had believed, and as they return home on the bus, Laurel, the African American girl who narrates the story, tells them of an incident in her family involving a white Mennonite family. As she tells the story, she comes to an unsettling realization about racism and the nature of human life. Her first name is Zuwena, which is a Swahili word meaning "good.


Brownies by ZZ Packer



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