Twyla, the narrator, explains that she and Roberta were in a shelter called St. Bonny’s because Twyla’s mother “danced all night” and Roberta’s mother was “sick.” Twyla says that people often feel pity for her when they learn she was in a shelter, but that it wasn’t that bad. She and Roberta shared a room with four beds, and the two girls slept in a different bed every night.
The relationship between the two girls, however, did not get off to a good start. Twyla admits that when she found out she would have to share a room with “a girl from a whole different race,” she felt “sick to my stomach.” Her mother, Mary, had told her that people of Roberta’s race never washed their hair and “smelled funny.” Twyla tells “Big Bozo,” the woman who runs the orphanage, that Mary would object to Twyla sharing a room with Roberta. Big Bozo responds dismissively and tells the girls that if they fight, they won’t be allowed to watch The Wizard of Oz later on.
Morrison challenges conventional understandings of race and racism by presenting Mary and Twyla’s racism in a nonspecific way. The reader cannot be sure if they are prejudiced toward white people or black people, a fact that points to the arbitrary social construction of race and racism in the first place. This in turn forces the reader to confront their own assumptions and prejudices about race.
After Big Bozo leaves, Roberta asks Twyla if her mother is sick too; Twyla responds that her mother (Mary) isn’t sick, but “just likes to dance all night.” Twyla likes the way that Roberta seems to understand her easily; this is true even though both children perform badly in school and Roberta cannot read. Twyla mentions that the only thing Roberta was good at was jacks. Although the two girls didn’t like each other at first, they were rejected by the other children because they weren’t “real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky.” Twyla recalls that there were children of many different races at St. Bonny’s, but that all of them refused to play with her and Roberta.
Although Roberta cannot read and thus is obstructed from understanding much of the world around her, she has a particular talent for understanding Twyla. The girls’ connection is fused through their exclusion by the rest of the children at the shelter, which is representative of the broader exclusion the children at St. Bonny’s face as poor, parentless, and vulnerable figures in a world filled with “normal” families.
Twyla notes that she loved the food at St. Bonny’s, particularly because her own mother’s “idea of supper was popcorn and a can of Yoo-Hoo.” She explains that sometimes she and Roberta were tormented by the older teenage girls at the shelter, who wore makeup and seemed intimidating but were actually (in retrospect) “scared runaways… poor little girls.” The older girls would play music on the radio and dance in the orchard, and if they caught Roberta and Twyla watching them they’d chase after them and “pull our hair and twist our arms.”
The children at St. Bonny’s act tough, but Morrison continuously drops reminders of the neglect and abuse they have suffered in their homes. While Twyla has some understanding of the fact that the older girls are also vulnerable, she cannot afford to seem as such because they are cruel to her. Throughout the story, vulnerable people often take out their anger and fear on those who are weaker than them.
Twyla recalls that she would often dream about the orchard, although she’s not sure why. She claims “nothing really happened there,” aside from the older girls dancing. She adds that “Maggie fell down there once,” and explains that Maggie was a bow-legged woman who worked in the kitchen at St. Bonny’s. When she fell, the older girls laughed at her, and Twyla was too afraid of them to help her.
Twyla explains that Maggie couldn’t talk; although some of the children say she had her tongue cut out, Twyla doesn’t believe them. Twyla recalls that she was “old and sandy-colored,” with “legs like parentheses” that made her walk in a distinctive, rocking manner. She wore a “stupid little hat—a kid’s hat with earflaps.” Twyla asks Roberta if Maggie can scream, worrying what would happen if someone tried to kill her; Roberta says that Maggie could only cry inaudibly. One day the two girls attempt to prove whether or not Maggie can hear them by calling her “Dummy!” and “Bow legs!”. Although Maggie does not react, Twyla later guiltily wonders if she could in fact hear them.
In some ways, Maggie’s disabilities seem to be reflections of the issues facing those around her. Like the children at St. Bonny’s who do not have any power or agency within their own lives, Maggie cannot communicate, and thus ends up a passive presence who cannot fight the horrible things done to her. Similarly, the way she walks connects her to Mary’s dancing, which Twyla then subconsciously turns into a “disease” by comparing it to Roberta’s mother’s illness. As with the two main characters, Maggie’s race is left ambiguous, described only as “sandy-colored.”
Twyla recalls that Big Bozo was “disappointed” in her and Roberta, because they were the only children at St. Bonny’s who had been “dumped” by their mothers and who got “F’s in three classes including gym.” However, Twyla and Roberta got along well. Twyla recalls that “the day before Maggie fell down” the girls found out their mothers were coming to visit on the same day. They look forward to the visit, excited by the prospect of their mothers meeting. On the day of the visit, Roberta wears a special pair of socks even though they have not yet dried after being washed, and each girl brings a homemade construction paper basket filled with candy.
Like the other children at St. Bonny’s, Twyla and Roberta put on a tough exterior. Yet the scene in which they prepare for their mothers’ arrival shows them to be what they really are: eight-year-old children. Without their mothers around, Twyla and Roberta are forced to behave like adults, but despite the ambivalent feelings that Twyla in particular holds toward her mother, when preparing to see her again she slips into the role of a young daughter.
The other visitors who arrive at St. Bonny’s are frightening, predatory adults—“the old biddies who wanted servants and the fags who wanted company.” Twyla reflects that if any of the children actually had a relative capable of taking care of them, “they wouldn’t be real orphans.” Twyla is upset upon seeing that her mother, Mary, is wearing a pair of green slacks that Twyla dislikes and considers inappropriate for the church service they are about to attend. Mary embraces Twyla, squishing the paper basket and exclaiming “Twyla, baby. Twyla, baby!”. Twyla is furious, knowing that the other children will tease her about this. At the same time, she is also happy, and wants to “stay buried in her fur all day.”
Mary represents everything that a mother in the 1950s is not supposed to be. She is dressed in a cheap, gaudy fashion, and behaves in a childish way. While this embarrasses Twyla, it does not seem to make her love Mary any less—at least not in a deep sense. The fur that Mary wears in this scene connects to the (much more expensive) fur coat Roberta wears in the final scene of the story.
Twyla is so happy to see Mary that she briefly forgets about Roberta, until Roberta comes to introduce her mother to Twyla and Mary. Roberta’s mother is “bigger than any man,” wearing an enormous cross and carrying a huge Bible. Mary tries to shake Roberta’s mother’s hand, but Roberta’s mother simply walks away, causing Mary to exclaim, “That bitch!”. Everyone in the chapel turns to stare at her. Mary is unable to concentrate during the service, groaning and checking her lipstick in a hand mirror. Twyla remembers thinking “she really needed to be killed.” She imagines the “real orphans were looking smug.”
Like Maggie and Mary, Roberta’s mother carries her “abnormality” within her very physical presence. Everything about her is larger-than-life, making her seem like a somewhat mythical, unreal figure. At the same time, we never learn her name or hear a single word she says; her personality, along with her illness, remain a mystery throughout the story. The only thing that is clear is that she is the opposite of Mary.
Mary hasn’t brought anything to eat for lunch, and Twyla again thinks, “I could have killed her.” Roberta’s mother, meanwhile, brought a large array of food; Roberta brings Twyla some graham crackers after the mothers leave, and Twyla thinks that she must be sorry that her mother snubbed Mary. She appreciates the fact that Roberta does not mention Mary’s behavior during chapel.
Throughout most of the story, Twyla does not vocalize any feelings of resentment toward her mother for neglecting her. However, in this scene Twyla’s feelings of disappointment and shame emerge in a sudden and violent fashion, and she repeats three times that she wishes she could kill her mother.
Roberta leaves St. Bonny’s in May, and on her last day she and Twyla sit in the orchard and watch the older girls dance and smoke. Roberta seems “sort of glad and sort of not” to be going home. Twyla thinks she will die in the room with four beds without her, but also knows that Big Bozo is planning to “move some other dumped kid” to be Twyla’s roommate. Roberta promises to write to Twyla every day, even though she cannot read. After Roberta leaves, her memory fades in Twyla’s mind.
Later in the story we learn that this is the day in which the gar girls kick Maggie in the orchard. However, on the day itself Twyla is more focused on Roberta’s imminent departure. Although the relationships formed at St. Bonny’s are like familial bonds, they are precarious. As a result, Twyla learns to move on quickly from the loss of her “sister.”
The story jumps forward eight years in time. Twyla is working at a Howard Johnson’s diner, which is far from where she lives in Newburgh, but not a bad job. She notes that the diner looks better at night, “more like shelter.” It is August and a Greyhound bus has just stopped at the diner. Suddenly, Twyla sees Roberta, who is smoking a cigarette and accompanied by two men with excessive facial hair. Roberta is wearing an outfit and makeup that “made the big girls look like nuns.” At the end of her shift, Twyla approaches her, wondering if Roberta will remember her and noting that she herself never talks about St. Bonny’s to anyone.
At this point, Twyla and Roberta’s lives have progressed in drastically different directions. Twyla lives an ordinary, modest, sensible life, in which the only excitement comes via the Greyhound buses that stop at Howard Johnson’s. Roberta, meanwhile, is a typical example of the members of the rebellious youth culture of the 1960s. Her makeup, outfit, and male companions are a far cry from the fervent religiosity of her absent mother.
Twyla reintroduces herself, and Roberta remembers her. They exchange small talk, and Roberta lets out “a private laugh that included the guys but only the guys.” Twyla feels self-conscious in her waitress uniform. She expects Roberta to invite her to sit with them, but instead Roberta tells her that they are on the way to see Hendrix. Twyla responds enthusiastically, asking what “she is doing now.” Roberta clarifies that she meant “Jimi Hendrix, asshole.” She goes to leave without saying goodbye, and Twyla asks after Roberta’s mother. Roberta says she is “fine” and Twyla says that Mary is “pretty as a picture.” Roberta leaves and Twyla again thinks about how ugly the Howard Johnson’s is in the light.
Twyla attempts to connect with Roberta over Roberta’s current interests; however, Twyla is too disconnected from the youth culture of which Roberta is a part, and thus this attempt fails. As a result, Twyla resorts to connecting through the issue that first brought the two girls together: their mothers. Although Roberta reacts flippantly in this instance, asking after each other’s mother will become a habit for Twyla and Roberta. They end almost every conversation in the rest of the story with this refrain.
The narrative jumps years ahead again. Twyla says her husband, James, is “as comfortable as a house slipper.” His family have always lived in Newburgh and consider the town an “upstate paradise,” even though half its residents are now on welfare. On the other hand, the town is also changing; wealthy executives are moving in, and people are buying run-down houses and renovating them. A gourmet store opens, and Twyla makes a trip there out of curiosity, but the only item she can bring herself to buy are Klondike bars. She notes that both her father-in-law and her son (Joseph) love them.
The narrative has jumped ahead in time, and Twyla has gone further down the path of an ordinary, working-class life. Note that James’ family are in many ways the opposite to Twyla and Roberta’s tumultuous upbringings; they are “normal,” close, and so stable that they don’t even notice the extent to which their surroundings have changed.
Suddenly Twyla hears Roberta call out her name. Roberta is “dressed to kill,” wearing diamonds and a white dress and holding asparagus and “fancy water.” At first Twyla corrects her, saying “I’m Mrs. Benson,” before realizing that the woman is Roberta. Roberta clarifies that she lives in Newburgh too, in an area called Annandale, “a neighborhood full of doctors and IBM executives.” Twyla remembers the moment 12 years earlier in Howard Johnson’s, still feeling hurt and wondering how Roberta has gone from going to see Jimi Hendrix to living in a fancy suburb.
Once again, Roberta has undergone a total transformation. Her clothes and groceries indicate that she is now wealthy, but still do not determine her race. Note that while the women now live in the same town, they are divided by economic (and likely also racial) segregation. While as children they were equals in their exclusion, there is now a distinct divide between Twyla and Roberta.
Roberta explains that the man she married a year ago, Kenneth Norton, is from Annandale. Twyla says that she is married to James Benson, whom she describes as “wonderful.” She tells Roberta that she has one son, and Roberta replies that her husband is a widower and she has four stepchildren. Roberta asks if Twyla has a moment to get a coffee, and Twyla briefly considers that the Klondike bars will melt in her car, before concluding that this “served me right for buying all that stuff I didn’t need.” She sees that Roberta’s car is being driven by a Chinese chauffeur, and the two women laugh imagining what Big Bozo would think if she could see them now.
Once again, this scene reveals the stark divide between Twyla and Roberta that has been created by their respective socioeconomic circumstances. Whereas Roberta seems not to be in a rush and has a chauffeur to drive her around, Twyla fixates on the simple purchase of Klondike bars. This difference is symbolized in the event of the Klondike bars melting, something that worries Twyla but which she is assumedly too embarrassed to bring up in front of Roberta.
Twyla reflects that it feels as if 20 years have disappeared and she and Roberta are children again. She recalls the teenage girls at St. Bonny’s, who they called the gar girls (based on a misunderstanding of the word gargoyles). Going into the coffee shop, she and Roberta hold each other and act “like sisters.” Twyla says that although she and Roberta only lived together for four months as children, they connected because they both knew how not to ask questions and instead simply understood each other, a skill that distinguished them from the rest of the world.
Throughout the story the characters are often fooled by surface appearances, and are unable to see what is beneath. This is true of the gar girls, whom Twyla and Roberta perceive to be tough and scary but are actually vulnerable. However, when Twyla and Roberta are together (at this point at least) they suddenly revert to a childlike state that seems to be closest to the truth of who they really are.
Twyla asks Roberta if she ever learned to read, and Roberta triumphantly reads the menu aloud. They recall details from their time at St. Bonny’s, and Twyla asks what ended up happening with Jimi Hendrix, but Roberta doesn’t respond. Instead, she tells Twyla about her husband, Kenneth, and their two servants. Twyla asks Roberta if she remembers the time when Maggie fell down and the gar girls laughed at her. Roberta gravely responds that Maggie didn’t fall—the gar girls pushed her in the orchard on purpose and ripped her clothes.
The juxtaposition of Roberta’s statement that she now has servants and the discussion about Maggie suggests that Roberta may feel a greater sense of guilt because of her current privileged position in society. Unlike Twyla, Roberta is less forgiving of the gar girls, and instead is horrified by the fact that they chose to push and kick Maggie, who is totally vulnerable because of her disabilities. Also note that even though Roberta is finally literate, she shows off her ability in a childish manner.
Twyla has no recollection of Maggie being pushed, but Roberta insists that this is what happened and that she and Twyla had been frightened. Roberta continues that Big Bozo was fired, which she knew because she returned to St Bonny’s twice after leaving. During the second time, when she was 14, she ran away to avoid ending up “dancing in the orchard.” Twyla is still in disbelief that Maggie was pushed, and asked Roberta who her roommates were when she returned. Roberta replies that they were “creeps” who “tickled themselves in the night.”
Roberta’s desperation to avoid becoming one of the girls “dancing in the orchard” seems incoherent with her appearance in Howard Johnson’s, during which Twyla notes that “she made the big girls look like nuns.” Perhaps Roberta’s fear was less of dressing up and dancing, and more of becoming morally corrupt, trapped in the shelter—the kind of person capable of pushing Maggie.
Suddenly Twyla decides she wants to go home, and feels angry at Roberta for not apologizing for the incident at Howard Johnson’s. She asks Roberta if she was “on dope” when they last met, and Roberta replies that it’s possible, but that her frostiness was just how things were then—“black—white.” Twyla disagrees, recalling how young white and black people would get off the bus and come into Howard Johnson’s together. However, she remembers the Klondike bars and feels childish for still feeling insulted. The women promise to “keep in touch this time,” and as they are saying goodbye once again ask about each other’s mothers. Twyla says Mary never stopped dancing, and Roberta sadly admits that Roberta’s mother never got well. After Roberta goes, Twyla wonders if it’s possible Roberta is right about Maggie.
Once again, Morrison manages to depict racial tension between the two women without actually revealing which of them is white and which is black. In doing so, she shows how both black people and white people can be dissuaded from interacting with others of a different race on account of broader tensions around them. Twyla’s contrasting opinion—that the 1960s were a time of racial mixing and (relative) harmony, at least among young people—shows that the ability to perceive racial tensions often depends on one’s particular position in society.
The narrative jumps ahead to the fall, when Newburgh is afflicted by “racial strife.” Twyla imagines this strife in the form of an enormous prehistoric bird watching and screeching at the neighborhood from the sky. Twyla knows she is supposed to feel bad about the strife, but isn’t sure what she thinks and receives no help figuring it out from James. Their son, Joseph, is on a list of students to be bused to another school, though Twyla doesn’t see a substantial difference between the schools. She forgets about the whole issue until one day when she drives past a school about to be integrated and sees Roberta carrying a sign that reads: “MOTHERS HAVE RIGHTS TOO!”
Twyla’s ambivalence over the policy of busing can be interpreted in multiple ways. It is possible that she is open-minded, isn’t upset by the prospects of racial integration, and believes it is okay for Joseph to be bused to a different neighborhood in service of the greater good. It could also be that, as a working-class person, she feels less politically influential and entitled to voice her opinion that her more affluent neighbors in Annandale. Finally, it is also conceivable that she is simply apathetic.
Roberta approaches Twyla, and the two women quickly realize that both their children are on lists to be bused. However, where Twyla feels indifferent about this, Roberta is furious. The two women argue vaguely over forced integration, and their words sound nasty and childish. Twyla looks at the other picketing mothers, complaining that they are “swarming all over the place like they own it” and claiming that they are “Bozos.” Roberta replies that they are in fact “just mothers,” and the women begin bickering again.
In contrast to the moment in the coffee shop when Twyla and Roberta reverted back to a joyous, harmonious version of their former selves, here the two women are polarized by their opposing adult identities. Whereas Twyla perceives Roberta as entitled and demanding, Roberta implies that Twyla is not performing her role as a mother correctly by snapping that the “Bozos” (connecting to the woman Roberta and Twyla both feared and disliked as children) are “just mothers.”
The picketing women surround Twyla’s car and begin rocking it, and Twyla instinctively reaches for Roberta, “like the old days in the orchard.” Roberta, however, does not take Twyla’s hand, but simply watches. Eventually, the police force the women to disperse, though Roberta remains staring at Twyla. She tells Twyla that she might be different now, but that Twyla is the same—“the same little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady.” Roberta claims it is hypocritical for Twyla to call her a bigot, considering she kicked Maggie. Twyla is confused, as she is sure that Maggie wasn’t black. She says this to Roberta, who responds “like hell she wasn’t,” and repeats that they kicked her, reminding Twyla that Maggie “couldn’t even scream.” The two women accuse each other of being liars before parting ways.
The moment that Twyla reaches for Roberta’s hand again emphasizes that beneath their differences in the present, the intense connection of their childhood endures. On the other hand, that connection is not absolute, but fragile, as Roberta’s lack of reaction shows. Roberta’s claim to have changed while Twyla is “the same” indicates the extent to which both women want to distance themselves from their childhoods. However, as much as their external circumstances have changed, the argument over Maggie’s race proves how difficult it is for either woman to leave St. Bonny’s behind.
The next day, Twyla makes a sign that reads “AND SO DO CHILDREN****.” She arrives outside the school and joins a newly formed counter-protest. On the first day, the two groups are “dignified,” ignoring those on the opposing side. The next day the women call each other names and make obscene gestures. Twyla realizes that her sign doesn’t make sense without Roberta’s; she also notes that Roberta was ignoring her and possibly didn’t notice she was there. The next day, when Roberta raises her sign reading “MOTHER HAVE RIGHTS TOO!”, Twyla immediately holds up a new sign she has made, reading “HOW WOULD YOU KNOW?”.
Although Twyla is theoretically counter-protesting the issue of busing, the real reason why she attends the protest is evidently to communicate with Roberta (recall that before seeing Roberta, she had little opinion on the topic). For this reason, she addresses her signs directly to her childhood friend, which baffles the other protesters. Once again, Twyla and Roberta are shown to be at odds with—and incomprehensible to—the world around them.
Days pass, and Twyla continues to make “crazier” signs that no one can understand, including one that reads “IS YOUR MOTHER WELL?”. Roberta leaves the protest and doesn’t come back; eventually, Twyla does the same. Classes are suspended for six weeks. Twyla attempts to tutor Joseph at home, but he and the other children in the neighborhood can’t concentrate and just end up watching TV. When the schools open again, there are fights and sirens heard in the streets. Joseph takes one of Twyla’s signs and hangs it in his bedroom, and Twyla’s father-in-law uses another to cut fish on.
Twyla’s strange signs suggest that she cares more about her relationship with Roberta than her identity as a mother. Although surprising, this also makes sense; Twyla and Roberta became like “sisters” to one another, and as such each girl formed a sense of their own identity through the other. As a result, Twyla depends on her attachment to Roberta—an attachment that proves painful because of its instability.
Twyla looks for Roberta at Joseph’s graduation, but doesn’t see her. She continues to dwell on the question of whether or not Maggie was actually black. Suddenly it occurs to Twyla that she and Roberta both know the truth, which is that they didn’t kick Maggie but wanted to. Twyla determines that “Maggie was my dancing mother,” and that both women had “nobody inside.” She draws a parallel between Maggie’s disabilities and Mary’s inability to perform her duties as a mother; she then compares Maggie’s silence and helplessness with her own.
Twyla’s breakthrough in this moment shows that she understands the complexity of her own emotions better than Roberta does. She is able to realize that her anger at Maggie was in fact displaced anger at her own mother, as well as frustration at her own vulnerability as a metaphorically “voiceless” child caught up in a situation beyond her control.
After some deliberation over whether or not to get a Christmas tree, Twyla decides that she wants to, and on her way back from buying it she drives past the Newburgh hotel. She sees a crowd of rich men and women in luxurious clothing, and observes that it makes her “tired to look at them.” On the next corner there is a diner, where she decides to stop for a cup of coffee. There she sees Roberta, wearing an elegant evening gown and fur coat and accompanied by two other people who look a little drunk. Roberta tells the other two to wait for her in the car and she sits in a booth with Twyla.
The opening of this scene presents a stark view of socioeconomic inequality; while Roberta is dressed luxuriously and seemingly oblivious to her class privilege, it makes Twyla tired just to look at rich people. The fur coat Roberta wears in this scene can be seen as a connection to the fur Mary wears in the chapel scene. Whereas Mary looked cheap and inappropriate, Roberta is the picture of elegance.
Roberta tells Twyla that she resolved to tell her something if the two of them ever met again. Twyla is resistant, but Roberta explains that it’s “about St. Bonny’s and Maggie.” Roberta insists that she really used to think Maggie was black, but now isn’t sure. She explains that she thought Maggie was crazy because she couldn’t talk, and that Maggie was brought up in an institution like Roberta’s mother was (and where Roberta assumed she also would be).
Note that where Twyla connects Maggie to her mother because of Mary’s physical “condition,” Roberta makes a parallel gesture, associating Maggie with her own mother because the two women both seem to suffer from psychological illnesses.
Roberta confesses that Twyla was right, that it was only the gar girls who kicked Maggie. However, Roberta adds that she wanted to kick her, and “wanting to is doing it.” Twyla tries to console Roberta, telling her that they were only eight-year-old children. The two women agree that they were both “lonely” and “scared.” Twyla asks if she told Roberta that Mary “never did stop dancing.” Roberta responds that her own mother never got better. Suddenly she begins sobbing more intensely, and exclaims: “What the hell happened to Maggie?”
Roberta comes to the exact same conclusion as Twyla did at the end of the previous scene, realizing that her desire to hurt Maggie was born out of her own sense of frustration and vulnerability. Unlike Twyla, however, Roberta is not able to forgive herself for this. Although she is momentarily consoled, her final words suggest that she will not yet be able to find peace with her desire to see Maggie suffer.