Another-Brooklyn-393x600Do you remember being fifteen? Let Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson’s first adult novel in 20 years, jog your memory. In this gritty, coming-of-age tale, Woodson transports readers to sweltering 1970s Brooklyn, New York, as a young girl grapples with unbearable grief, friendship and lost memories.

When we meet August, she’s an anthropologist in her mid-30s who has returned to Brooklyn after a long absence to bury her father. She has an accidental run-in with an old friend — more like a sister, really — that triggers remembrances. The rest of the novel is a flashback to early adolescence. August narrates her own story.

We begin with eight-year-old August moving from a dilapidated Tennessee farm to New York City with her father and younger brother. The Vietnam War claimed her mother’s younger brother and the loss drove her mother to an early grave.  

In those early days in Brooklyn, a trio of girls — Gigi, Sylvia, and Angela — soon become her confidants. The longing for connection is palpable, both to readers and her newfound friends.

                What did you see in me? I’d ask years later. Who did you see standing there?

                You looked lost, Gigi whispered. Lost and beautiful.

The new foursome blend so tightly that even their descriptions on the page feel fluid. The three girls become kin to August, the intimacy of their relationship soothing but never extinguishing her grief: “…I had Sylvia, Angela and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying, Here. Help me carry this.”

They all navigate complicated home lives, short-lived romances and persistent predators, giving each other tips on how to protect their bodies. (They all know to avoid the owner of the shoe repair shop: He’ll offer you a quarter to see your panties.)

Woodson is a master at summoning small details — the glint of a wrench used to twist off a fire hydrant cap, the tips of toes hanging over the edge of too-small shoes — and at painting a portrait of a neighborhood in flux. There are no throwaway sentences in Another Brooklyn — each short, poetic line feels carefully loved and polished. The first half of this novel asks urgent questions; the second delivers uneasy, heartbreaking answers. At its core, this book is about fragility, how light shines in the broken places.

While most of the characters are vibrant and well-drawn, it is surprising that our protagonist is so mysterious. The readers don’t really know August beyond her grief. Woodson keeps the details scant: August is a protective big sister and a dutiful daughter. But what defines August, through all 170 pages, is her inability to cope with the foundational loss of her mother. Every page holds a dull ache. 

Asked to name her influences by Booklist, Woodson said, “Two major writers for me are James Baldwin and Virginia Hamilton. It blew me away to find out that Virginia Hamilton was a sister like me. Later, Nikki Giovanni had a similar effect on me. I feel that I learned how to write from Baldwin. He was onto some future stuff, writing about race and gender long before people were comfortable with those dialogues. He would cross class lines all over the place, and each of his characters was remarkably believable. I still pull him down from my shelf when I feel stuck.”

Woodson has spent the last two decades crafting smart young adult fiction and poetry, most recently winning the National Book Award in 2014 for her poetic memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming. Woodson’s return to adult fiction doesn’t stray far from her comfort zone; minus a few scenes, Another Brooklyn would work entirely as a young adult novel. It is one that strengthens as the pages pile up.

In absorbing August’s journey, we’re reminded that our teenage selves still roam within, only tempered by time and adult responsibility. But Another Brooklyn brings them back to the forefront, asking us, Who were you when you were 15?

the underground railroad colson whiteheadby Charles Ellenbogen

With all of the recent discussion about the changing faces on U.S. currency, some controversy emerged over a seemingly safe and definitely popular choice – Harriet Tubman. How many people, some asked, did she really lead to freedom? Do we really want the story of slavery memorialized on money? And, most persuasively, would Tubman herself have wanted this honor?

By not bringing up her name in his breathtakingly great new book, The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead, winner of the 2002 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for John Henry Days continues this conversation. Like most movements, the Railroad was made up of both the heroic conductors such as Tubman and the many nameless others who aided escaping slaves. Cora, Whitehead’s protagonist, and Caesar, who inspires Cora to run, make use of the Railroad on their escape.

But this is not Tubman’s railroad. Whitehead has, instead, imagined an actual train that runs underground. This is in keeping with Whitehead’s fictional moves elsewhere – he takes reality and winds it even more tightly to create a hybrid. This is not magical realism; this is Whitehead’s world. It is life intensified.

As with many journey stories, there are echoes of the Odyssey here. Indeed, Whitehead even has named a 10-year old former slave Homer. He drives a carriage for Ridgeway, a kind of Inspector Javert of slave hunters. Having failed to catch Cora’s mother, Mabel, Ridgeway is obsessed with capturing Cora, who is escaping from Georgia. Homer, having been freed, stays with Ridgeway; he has nowhere else to go. In fact, “Each night with meticulous care, Homer opened his satchel and removed a set of manacles. He locked himself to the driver’s seat, put the key in his pocket, and closed his eyes. Ridgeway caught Cora looking. ‘He says it’s the only way he can sleep.’” The soul aches. Absolutely.

While he does not shy away from the intricate details of suffering (you’ll want to look away, but you won’t), Whitehead’s language is both spartan and evocative. Near the novel’s beginning, Whitehead recounts the story of Ajarry, Cora’s grandmother being captured and sold. He explains that two “yellow-haired sailors rowed Ajarry out to the ship, humming. White skin like bone.” The language evokes the bones of the Middle Passage that Ajarry is about to take. We register the harshness – humming while taking someone to be sold – and the abruptness of the word ‘bone.’ The sailors, having lost their humanity, have become skeletons of human beings. When it comes to Whitehead’s writing, less is definitely more. Much more.

In the end, though, The Underground Railroad is not just Cora’s story. Or even the story of her family. It is a story about stories – the stories we tell each other, the stories we tell ourselves, the stories our documents give us, the stories we find in libraries and museums and on money, the stories that are forbidden to us, the stories of America. “Truth was a changing display in a shop window,” Whitehead writes, “manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.”

In Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen offers a test of this premise. He suggests choosing one element in American history to track how it is treated in different sources over time. I chose John Brown. In some textbooks, he was absent or limited to a brief mention as a lunatic. In other texts, he earned several paragraphs and was depicted as a hero. “Cora blamed the people who wrote it down. People always got things wrong, on purpose as much as by accident,” Whitehead writes. This happens in textbooks. Novels too. Whitehead has gotten the Underground Railroad wrong, deliberately wrong, but to fault him is to miss the point. We must look, and we cannot look away. Whether we read, see an exhibit or watch a movie, we should do both and we should ask ourselves why we need to do both.

Whitehead is already racking up acclaim for this novel. Oprah chose it for her book club. The New York Times chose excerpts from it for its first broadsheet. There are, I am sure, more prizes in his future.

And I am happy for Whitehead’s success. It is time to move past considering him as a one or two-hit wonder — he wrote Zone One and Sag Harbor — and to start considering his work as a whole. If you haven’t read any of his work, The Underground Railroad is a great place to start. Some reviewers have noted how the novel resonates with today’s headlines. While this is true, such comments diminish the book. This novel will outlast headlines. It speaks to the truths underneath them. I read The Underground Railroad and was moved. Things I thought I knew shifted, sometimes slightly and sometimes violently. I was spectator, bystander, and, as hard as it is to admit it, participant. The novel is a journey, from captivity to freedom, from south to north, from past to present. It’s quite a ride.

Charles Ellenbogen teaches English at John F. Kennedy – Eagle Academy in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. 

the-fire-this-time-9781501126345_hrThere are 108 tally marks on the cover of The Fire This Time, the new essay collection that brings forth 18 perspectives from a new generation of writers, working in the tradition of James Baldwin. Each mark represents a black life lost too soon, a visual representation of the urgency of #BlackLivesMatter.

In the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013, Jesmyn Ward went to Twitter to share her frustration, but found the platform too ephemeral. She was much more struck by the pertinence of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Ward, editor of this anthology, decided she wanted a book that “would reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America.”

The results are mostly successful. The Fire Next Time contains a broad spectrum of essays that tackle everything from Phillis Wheatley’s mysterious marriage to Rachel Dolezal’s recent identity hoax, an engaging concoction of both the historical and contemporary. Eleven of the 18 pieces are original, with the rest published between 2014 and 2015.

The Fire This Time opens with Jericho Brown’s “The Tradition,” a 14-line poem that links the imagery of a brilliantly colorful meadow with the brutal deaths of John Crawford, Eric Garner and Mike Brown. Its early inclusion instructs us to get unsettled. (Brown won an Anisfield-Wolf book award last year for The New Testament.)

After a sturdy and moving introduction, the book falls into three parts – Legacy, Reckoning and Jubilee. In “Da Art of Storytellin’” Kiese Laymon’s fuses of his grandmother’s 30 years of hard work at a chicken processing plant with the Southern stank of Outkast’s Atlanta classics. Emily Raboteau criss-crossed four of New York’s boroughs to capture anti-police brutality murals in “Know Your Rights!” Isabel Wilkerson, who won a 2011 Anisfield-Wolf award for her Great Migration history, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” revisits 150 years of U.S. history in a slim three pages called “Where Do We Go from Here?” Her precise retelling comes with parting encouragement: “We must know deep in our bones and in our hearts that if the ancestors could survive the Middle Passage, we can survive anything.”  

Still, reading most of these essays feels heavy. The collective thesis is that Black life in America, like Claudia Rankine posits in her essay, is “the condition of mourning.” But as Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote to his son, echoing the advice of generations before him: “That this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within all of it.”

Edwidge Danticat, who took home an Anisfield-Wolf award in 2005 for The Dew Breakers, closes the book with a powerful message to her two young daughters, born in the “Yes We Can” era of Barack Obama’s first presidential run. Danticat, born in Haiti and raised partly in New York, offers a view of refugee status — a position held both by immigrants and some U.S. citizens: “The message we always heard from those who were meant to protect us: that we should either die or go somewhere else.”

Still, Danticat fortifies her daughters against this, encouraging them to seek joy: “When that day of jubilee finally arrives, all of us will be there with you, walking, heads held high, crowns a-glitter, because we do have a right to be here.”