Tar Baby: Chapter 1
The chapter begins with some background information about the Isle des Chevaliers. Three hundred years ago, laborers brought in from Haiti cleared the land of this island paradise, after which impressive houses were built. One of these houses, sitting on a high hill, was the beautiful L’Arbe de le Croix, which now has a reputation for being one of the finest houses in the Caribbean. It is owned by Valerian Street, a seventy-year-old businessman from Philadelphia who retired to the island several years ago, where he lives with his younger wife Margaret, a former beauty queen from Maine. Valerian spends most of his time sitting in his greenhouse looking after his plants and listening to classical music. He is attended by his butler, a black man named Sydney. Sydney’s wife Ondine is the cook.
In the morning, Valerian talks with Sydney at breakfast, complaining about everything from corns to constipation; he also suspects that his wife drinks secretly, and he is annoyed that a guest is expected for Christmas, when all he wants is to be left alone. Sydney informs him that the visitor will be Michael, Valerian’s and Margaret’s son, who lives in California.
Margaret arrives for breakfast, and Sydney pours her coffee. She wants mangoes, but Sydney has served pineapple. Sydney leaves and returns with the required fruit, while Valerian and his wife exchange tart comments. They appear to be cool, even antagonistic towards each other. Valerian speaks to her in a disdainful, rather sarcastic manner. For her part, she gives expression to her resentment, saying that for years she has not invited anyone there because Valerian hates everybody, which Valerian promptly denies. But she insists that Valerian does not even want to see his own son. Margaret says she is planning to go back to the States and live near Michael, but Valerian replies such an arrangement will not work. He tells her to leave Michael alone. Margaret expresses her annoyance that her husband is always saying he will return to the United States, but he never does so.
The talk turns to Jadine, a successful young fashion model, the niece of Sydney and Ondine and friend of Margaret, who is staying with them. Valerian and Margaret are unsure what her plans are. Valerian thinks she wants to open a shop, and Margaret reassures him that even if Jadine sets up in the retail business, she will not take Sydney and Ondine with her. They will stay and continue to look after Valerian.
Valerian and Margaret then quarrel about the Christmas menu; Valerian has ordered geese but Margaret wants turkey. Valerian lets her have her way.
Sydney returns to the kitchen, where Ondine complains about Margaret’s request for mangoes. They refer to her as the “Principal Beauty,” an allusion to her days as a beauty queen. Ondine resents Margaret’s demands regarding the Christmas dinner. Ondine and Sydney are also skeptical about Michael’s visit and doubt that he will come. He has never been to the house since he became an adult. They think he does not want to be near his mother. Ondine then complains about what she is expected to cook for Valerian.
Jadine enters the kitchen and they serve her breakfast. Ondine reports that some boxes of chocolate and half a case of Evian water are missing from the house. They speculate about who might have taken these items. Perhaps it was Yardman, the gardener and odd-job man, and one of his female helpers. At that moment they look out of the window and see Yardman approaching.
This chapter introduces the main characters in the story and outlines their relationships. These people have lived together for a very long time and know each other very well. But there are clearly tensions in this household. Relations between Valerian and his wife are icy. Valerian is not a man who loses his temper or expresses overt anger, but his aggression comes out in measured phrases that are designed to contradict whatever his wife says. For her part, Margaret is restless and dissatisfied. Life on this island holds nothing for her; her only joy appears to be that her son is shortly to arrive.
There are also tensions between the Streets and their long-time employees, Sydney and Ondine. Ondine has strong negative feelings toward Margaret. She comments that Michael loves his mother, which is natural, but he “is not the one who’s not natural. She is” (p. 36). Ondine does not explain what she means by this reference to the “unnaturalness” of Margaret, but it will become apparent later.
Sydney, who has been a loyal butler to Valerian for thirty-some years, also has his issues with his employer. His comment, “Air conditioning in the shed, but none in the house, I swear. All that money” (p. 38) suggests his resentment at Valerian’s stinginess.
But these four people all seem to need each other for one reason or another. There is at the moment a kind of equilibrium in their relationships; they know their places and the roles they play. Although it would seem that Valerian and Margaret, as the employers, hold all the power, that is not in fact the case. Ondine’s final words in this chapter, that she will not order any turkey for Christmas, shows that she is confident enough of her position to defy Margaret’s wishes. Margaret may be able to get Valerian to grudgingly accede to what she wants, but getting past Ondine is a different matter altogether.
As the story unfolds, the uneasy equilibrium in these relationships will be put to the test.