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Reviews of Thylias Moss's Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress

Grace Fill

Distinguished author of six volumes of poetry and two children's books, Moss is a writer of exceptional ability and talent, whose lifelong love affair with words began in early childhood. In this deeply reflective first work of prose, Moss tells of the violent intrusion of brutality, in the form of her adolescent baby-sitter--a girl in an outgrown sky-blue dress--into a childhood otherwise infused with love and nurturance. The second and more devastating blow came in the form of racism in the inner-city educational system that failed to recognize, much less support, Moss' exceptional abilities. This haunting memoir is also a delicate and thorough exploration of the nature of evil and the place of cruelty both in the author's own life and more broadly within the human experience. Fascinated by the pull of darkness but unwilling to live a life without pleasure and wonder, Moss ultimately triumphs, after sustained effort over many years, in a celebration of the splendor of the universe and the joy in its perception.

from Booklist (June 1 & 15, 1998)
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Review by Barbara Holliday for the Detroit Free Press

Published: Sunday, August 9, 1998

Thylias Moss has written a remarkably frank memoir. And because she is a poet first and foremost, it is lyrically written. She also raises an interesting question. Does early experience, evil by its very nature, contribute to one's later life, or can it be assuaged? 

Moss, an assistant professor of English at the University of Michigan, has published six books of poetry and two children's books. She is also the recipient of a number of awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim and an NEA grant. Yet from the ages of 5 to 9, she was under the influence of a sadistic older child who was her baby-sitter and who often wore a sky-blue dress after it was too small, hence the memoir's title.  

Lytta Dorsey not only victimized her young ward physically, verbally and sexually but also, in Moss' own words, gave her "a gift of darkness." Up until then, Thylias' life had been protected by her father, a mechanic, and her mother, a maid, who wrapped her in a cocoon of loveliness. She thinks perhaps the novelty of cruelty made it exciting. She never told on her persecutor. 

Still, it seems remarkable that a child as bright as Thylias would have retreated into silence (she wonders as if there is a connection between evil and surrender), which carried over into her early relationship with boys. She had had an abortion by the time she was 16. 

The biggest change in her life seemed to come with the advent of Wesley, a young Air Force sergeant back from a three-year tour. Showing extraordinary patience, he led the young girl, still only 16, back to normalcy after she had undergone much sexual abuse.

In time, she ended up in graduate school and then was offered various teaching posts. She is now 40, has two sons and couldn't be happier.

But, "Is it true," she writes, "that I would not be this writer, if not for Lytta? I am not ready to admit to her necessity in my life."    Certainly one could say that overcoming her dread of Lytta might be considered a plus. But the truth is that they simply moved away. Thylias concedes that Lytta has probably never given her a second thought.

Was it not Socrates who said, "The unexamined life is not worth living?" Thylias Moss has certainly examined her life from every angle and seems to have resolved the big issues: God, life, death.

As for the girl in the sky blue dress, we can only wonder.

Barbara Holliday is a former Free Press book editor reading in Phoenix.
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