Tar Baby: Character Profiles
Jadine Childs, also known as Jade, is a beautiful twenty-five-year-old black American woman. She has just completed a degree in art history at the Sorbonne in Paris and is a successful fashion model. Jadine is an orphan; her mother died when she was twelve and her father when she was two. The only family she has are Sydney and Ondine, her uncle and aunt. Valerian and Margaret Street have taken care of Jadine financially, paying all her education, travel and clothing expenses. Jadine identifies strongly with Western, “white” culture; she loves Paris and New York, and when the novel begins, she is considering marrying a white European man. She happens to be staying at the Streets’ house when Son arrives. After a rocky start, they fall in love, but their relationship does not have a happy outcome. It brings to the foreground the fact that Jadine, unlike Son, does not identify with being black or with black culture. She says, “I want to get out of my skin and be only the person inside—not American—not black—just me” (p. 48).
Ondine Childs is the wife of Sydney Childs, and is Jadine’s aunt. She is the cook at the Streets’ house. Seventeen years younger than her husband, she is originally from Baltimore. When she first began to work for the Streets, she became friends with Margaret, but her feelings turned to hatred when she saw Margaret abusing her baby son. Ondine can be testy. She thinks of the kitchen as her own territory and is resentful when Margaret insists on cooking the Christmas dinner herself. At the dinner, she tells everyone about Margaret’s shameful secret, and the two women fight, although they eventually have a reconciliation of sorts. Ondine gets on better with her niece Jadine, but expects Jadine to be more respectful to her as an older woman. Ondine is conscious of getting older; she has worked hard all her life and now her feet ache from standing too much and she cannot do all that she used to do. She is concerned about the future, because she and Sydney own no property and have few savings.
Sydney Childs is Valerian’s butler. He is originally from Baltimore but left for Philadelphia when he was a young man, where he became “one of those industrious Philadelphia Negroes—the proudest people in the race” (p. 61). Sydney has known Valerian for fifty-one years. He finds his employer exasperating but he is loyal to him because he is generally well treated. Sydney is a proud man who possesses with a dignity about him that Jadine used to regard with awe. As the butler, he is used to keeping his feelings to himself, but he is outraged when the intruder Son is given the guest room by Valerian. He despises Son as a drifter and would have preferred to shoot him when he had the chance.
Alma Estée is a young black girl who sometimes lives with Gideon and Thérèse and sometimes assists them in their work at L’Arbe de la Croix.
Gideon is the brother of Thérèse. He is employed by the Streets as gardener and odd job man. They do not know his real name and call him Yardman. Gideon spent twenty years in the United States and became a U.S. citizen. He lied to Thérèse that he had made a lot of money there, and she persuaded him to return to the Caribbean. The truth was that he returned home with no more than he set off with, which was almost nothing, and he and Thérèse live in poverty. Gideon is eventually fired by Valerian, along with his sister, for stealing apples.
Dr. Michelin is the French dentist who relieved Valerian’s toothache three years ago. The two men then became friends. Dr. Michelin does not appear directly in the story but he is referred to several times.
Soldier is Son’s old buddy who still lives in Eloe, Florida. Son meets up with him again when he takes Jadine back home. However, Jadine takes a dislike to Soldier, who does not seem to have much respect for women and annoys Jadine with his too personal questions.
Son’s real name is William Green. A black man, he was raised in the small town of Eloe, Florida. He had little formal education and went as a soldier to Vietnam when he was eighteen. He refused orders and was discharged without honor. When he returned to the States he married a woman named Cheyenne, but when he found her in bed with another man he drove his car in anger into their house. The house caught fire and Cheyenne died. Since then Son has led a nomadic life, wandering from job to job, refusing to play by society’s rules. He despises American materialistic culture and tries to live in a more authentic way. He says he does not care for money.
Over the last eight years he has had seven documented identities and barely remembers his original name. He has been at sea on and off for most of those eight years, mostly cargo ships. One day he jumps ship in the Caribbean and ends up hiding in the Streets’ house.
Margaret Street is Valerian’s wife. She is nearly fifty years old, a good twenty years younger than her husband. The daughter of immigrants, she grew up in a trailer in Maine. She was red-haired and beautiful and as a young woman was crowned Miss Maine. Valerian fell in love with her as soon as he saw her, and she was happy to marry him at the age of seventeen and get away from her family to go and live in Philadelphia. But she did not feel at home there and was worried about losing Valerian. The situation eased when her baby Michael was born.
Margaret does not like living on the Isle des Chevaliers, which she regards as a “jungle” and a “boiling graveyard” (p. 85). She wants Valerian to honor his promise to go back to the States but he shows no signs of doing so. Margaret can tolerate her life there only because of Jadine’s company, her shopping expeditions, and her lunches with the neighbors. Otherwise, her life is very unhappy, and she is starting to show neurotic traits, strangely forgetting the names and uses of common objects. She is also desperate for a visit from her son.
Michael Street is the son of Valerian and Margaret. He never appears directly in the story, but he is an important character nonetheless. Michael is in his late twenties, and likes to take up fashionable leftist causes. He wants to be an environmental lawyer. At the time the novel takes place, he is working on an Indian reservation. He has said he will come to the Streets for Christmas, but he never shows up.
Valerian Street is a former businessman from Philadelphia. He inherited the family business, the manufacturing of candy. When he was thirty-nine he met and married Margaret, who was then barely out of high school. Margaret was his second wife; his first marriage lasted nine years and he has only bitter memories of it. Valerian never enjoyed running the family business and he promised himself he would retire when he was sixty-five. He was not far off his target, retiring to the house he built on the Isle des Chevaliers when he was sixty-eight, a couple of years before the story begins.
Valerian spends a lot of his time in his greenhouse listening to classical music. His marriage to Margaret is not a good one. They spend a lot of time baiting each other and she resents his control over her life. Valerian cultivates a relaxed, cool manner, as if he is always in control of life. He is unafraid when Son is discovered in the house, and invites him to stay for dinner, enjoying the discomfort this causes everyone else. But Valerian’s smooth world is overthrown when he discovers that his wife abused their son when he was little. He feels extreme guilt that he did not find out about it at the time. After this shattering blow, his health deteriorates.
Thérèse is the older sister of Gideon. She is probably in her sixties and is nearly blind. She admires Son and parades him through town as an example of an authentic black American. Thérèse has a lot of prejudices and a very warped view of what life in America is like. Her “hatreds were complex and passionate” (p. 110); she generally does not speak to American blacks, and will not even acknowledge the presence of the white Americans. At heart she is a simple woman who believes the old legend about the existence of a blind race on the island who are descended from slaves.