In the opening scene of Marian L. Thomas’s new novel, “I Believe in Butterflies,” Emma Lee Baker, one of the lead characters, is standing on a bridge “during the heat of the day” and staring at fish.
“I ain’t crazy. I just like staring at freedom,” Baker says through the book’s first-person narration. Moments later, the reader finds out the 76-year-old woman’s grim discovery — the body of a young girl who appears to be no older than 14, her blonde hair “wrapped around her neck like it was the thing that choked the poor life out of her.”
Thomas flips the script, so to speak, on a very familiar literary occurrence — instead of a black male found dead, the victim of a lynching; here is white innocence itself, a young blonde female teen, symbolically lynched by the very standard of beauty and power meant to be her protection. Before long, racism makes victims of us all, Thomas’s novel proposes.
Race and its many, suffocating complications, loom over much of the author’s body of work, which includes a children’s book, a play and six novels.
But it took leaving relatively integrated Oak Park and moving to Atlanta for Thomas to start working through those many complications.
In Oak Park, Thomas lived with her maternal grandparents, who were one of two black homeowners on the block, she said. The reality of race here, however, wasn’t quite as domineering as it was in Atlanta.
For the most part, Thomas’s grandparents lived the American Dream, which they earned through a degree of thrift that’s rare nowadays. Thomas’s grandmother, a nurse at Mt. Sinai Hospital and her grandfather, a baker, bought their Oak Park house and their Cadillacs in cash.
In 1988, Thomas moved to Atlanta with her father and stepmother. She was only one of two black seniors in her high school’s graduating class.
“Growing up in Oak Park, I didn’t really understand the whole black, white, interracial dynamic until I moved to the South, which is a very different culture,” she said during a June 3 book signing held at AfriWare Books in Maywood. “It was an eye-opener.”
If moving to the South sparked an awareness of grand themes that would define her work, Thomas’s time in Oak Park fertilized her passion for storytelling. It was in the library at Oak Park and River Forest High School where she wrote he first short story, which became the basis for her first novel, “Color Me Jazzmyne” — published two decades and many rewrites later.
The book climbed to the top of the Amazon bestseller’s list and won a Sankofa Literary Society award.
Thomas had by then graduated from college magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in business. She said she was pushed by an old boss to rework her high school short story into a novel.
Now, Thomas, who works full-time as a digital marketing professional, is experiencing a fresh surge in popularity and appeal. Her message, though, is as age-old as her grandparents’ thriftiness.
“Emma talks about her fish and why she loves her fish, which she call ‘freedom,'” Thomas said. “That’s because that’s how God meant for all of us to be [just as fish are fish, people are people]. We should focus on being men and women. Race shouldn’t be the first thing we think about. The message in the book is to treat each other as humans.”