The Ditchdigger’s Daughters (Book Notes)

23 Jul
English: Head photo of Dr. Thornton in Black a...

English: Head photo of Dr. Thornton in Black and White (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Ditchdigger’s Daughters

by Dr. Yvonne S. Thornton and Jo Coudert

The Ditchdigger’s Daughters: A Black Family’s Astonishing Success Story  demonstrates how Donald Thornton raised five daughters to be professional women and did it, in memoir-worthy style, against pretty big odds. In pre-Civil Rights New Jersey, no one expected his five black daughters to do anything but get pregnant and drop out of high school. No one except their mother and father, that is. First published in 1985, the book has never been out of print, has been translated into more than 15 languages, nominated for a Peabody award, and adapted for cable television. Clearly, this is an American story that resonates with many people.

As the book’s subtitle announces, all the girls turned out fine and Dr. Yvonne Thornton is proud to tell us how that happened. It should have been a compelling story, the all-American trajectory from rags to riches in one generation. Yet somehow Thornton’s tale lacks the bite of Cupcake Brown’s Piece of Cake or Jeanette Wall’s The Glass Castle. The Ditchdigger’s Daughters works so hard to paint a happy picture that it avoids the hard themes that Brown and Wall tackle. Donald Thornton’s determination to shelter the girls borders on isolation; their mother, Itasker Thornton,  suffers from debilitating depression that the narrative avoids; and the tumult of the Civil Rights movement is glossed over as if it barely affected Thorntons. Nowhere, for instance, does she discuss what it might have meant to this family that the children were guaranteed the right to vote while the parents never had it.

Itasker escaped a hard-scrabble life in West Virginia. She worked hard at school and finagled scholarships for her first couple of years of college, with the intention of becoming a nurse. But when the scholarships ended, she waited for her sister to send promised funds against their father’s wishes. When the money didn’t come, Itasker realized that she had to escape her father’s control and she ran away to New York City.

Donald escaped a home that alternated between abuse and neglect, lying about his age to get a job in New York City. His parents came to retrieve him and force him home. But he kept running and eventually met Itasker, ten years his senior. They fell in love and when she got pregnant, they got married. When Donald joined the Navy, Itasker turns to her in-laws who at first didn’t believe her, then reluctantly took her in until Donald returned and she was able to escape them.

With a start like that, these two certainly did not have great parenting examples. They fought the racial stereotypes that prevented them from fulfilling their dreams, and sometimes even having any. Their daughter’s elegy to her father rings almost as a justification for the methods her father employed to ensure their success. Without question, it is a story of sacrifice and perseverance leading to great achievement–the American dream at its most mythical.

In response to ribbing about how his five girls were bound to end up pregnant and abandoned, his responsibility forever, Donald joked that his daughters would all become doctors. Eventually the joke became a dream and then the dream became a goal. Along the way, the girls, each in turn, developed musical talents and Donald realized that he could use their music to help shape the women they would become—loyal, driven, and educated.

Summed up, this is the American dream writ large—through a musical talent that brought recording deals to their door, these five girls and their parents financed their college educations. Father worked hard to provide for them and to instill values that would help them have a better future. He insured that they stayed focused—life was family, school, practice, performance. There are the requisite rebellions and stumbling blocks, but it all works out..

As the third daughter, Yvonne assumes the responsibility for her father’s dreams. She not only becomes a doctor—getting into a prestigious school from an unknown community college—she marries a doctor and both go on to be leaders in their fields. While I find myself marveling at her father’s doling out of $1.97 when asked for $2, telling the girls to scrape up the last $0.03 themselves (and think this is a great way of sharing the value of money with a child), I frequently found myself questioning if Dr. Thornton ever had any dreams of her own and if she understood how–from our 21st century perspective–she seems burdened by her desire to make her father proud and save him from disappointment.

None of this is “spoiler alert” territory—it is mostly summed up on the book jacket and in online reviews. And what isn’t there could easily be filled in by a habitual memoir reader. And that may be where The Ditchdigger’s Daughters disappoints—after it sets up the history and demonstrates the father’s parenting style, the rest of it is completely predictable. Thornton quotes lengthy conversations that happened in the distant past as if she could remember them verbatim, a narrative approach that quickly grows tiresome. And most concerning, she does not recuperate her mother’s role in her success, relegating Itasker to the passenger seat she occupied on the way to Thornton Sister concerts. Tellingly, Itasker plays in the band as a sixth “sister” for many years.

Granted, Walls and Brown had demons to work out in their memoirs and Thornton seems to have nothing but pride in her upbringing. Further, writing in 1985, Thornton was breaking ground for a post-Civil Rights African American woman, both in her accomplishments and as a memoirist. But she does have a compelling, American story that spans the post-war era to a time when a black man was appointed to the Supreme Court. Beyond demonstrating that through sheer willpower her father (what about her mother?!) ensured that she and her sisters defied societal expectations of black women, she does little of note with their story.

That’s my opinion, of course. Oprah Winfrey had an entirely different take and the book is nearing 30 years of continuous publication. For that reason alone, it is worth a read.  My research for this piece also turned up a book by another sister* and the Thornton Sisters Foundation, which provides scholarships for women of color in New Jersey. Whatever I think of Dr. Thornton’s writing style, I cannot fault her continuing efforts to help other young women of color achieve what she has.

*From what I can tell, A Suitcase Full of Dreams (1996) by Jeannette Thornton and Rita Thornton tells the untold story of Itasker Thornton

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