Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Review: 145th Street Short Stories

Walter Dean Myers. Dell Laurel-Leaf, 2000. This is a collection of short stories telling of the lives of the residents of one block in Harlem. Myers' gifted voice spins one tale after another; of Big Joe, who plans his own funeral and participates in it while still living in order to enjoy the party, and Angela, a young girl who begins to dream premonitions of other people's deaths. Here is an excerpt from Angela's Eyes, speaking about her mother in the opening paragraphs:
"The wind, whistling across the vacant lots and through the redbrick and fire escape canyons of the neighborhood, had taken another summer. Old men brought out their faded suit jackets and moved their domino games inside. Theresa, the mother of Angela Luz colon, finally emerged from her grief and called the factory where she had worked before he husband, Fernando, had been killed. They told her she could come back to work, and she did.
That is not to say that she had stopped crying against the wall at night or stopped reaching out her hand in the darkness to where he had lain by her side for so many years. It was just that she had also begun to rise, once she had watched the gray mist of twilight give way to early sun, and leave for work."
My stars, the beauty and sadness of those paragraphs! Every story in this collection is equally breath-taking.

Myers speaks of what he knows. As a child he was raised in Harlem by foster parents. His mother died when he was young and his father struggled to raise eight children. Walter lived with family friends, the Deans, for much of his growing up years. He sings the song of the community that nurtured him; beats out the pain, raises the joy, flows with the energy of his growth.

I lived in a large city for a number of years in a neighborhood that was as closely intertwined as this one. We sat out on our stoops in the evening and listened to the funny stories of this or that neighbor. We noted comings and goings. We watched each other's children. Myers' story The Baddest Dog in Harlem cuts particularly close to my heart as I remember those years. The story starts out with a group of men on the street talking about who is the greatest fighter of all time; Ali or Joe Louis. Suddenly police cars come screaming around the corner and cops jump out with guns drawn. The men find themselves stuck in the middle of a tense potential shoot-out situation. The story is told with a tender, astute balance of perspective that lets the reader feel the terror and the hesitancy of both the police and the bystanders. Myers' brilliance is in his ability to illuminate and place readers directly in the story even if we have no previous experience. This is such a rare talent.

I put off reading this book for a while because I was afraid it would be yet another book about ethnic youth living in the city, and I didn't want to see that stereotype played out again. I didn't want to blog about it because I was afraid this would be the type of book that white suburban teachers keep on hand to give to the one black kid in class, figuring it covers them for diversity. I didn't want to offer a token ethnic book for anyone's collection. I should have known better, seeing it was written by Walter Dean Myers. His brilliance goes so far beyond my presuppositions I need to blush. Anyone, of any race or ethnicity living anywhere on the planet could read this book and gain a deeper understanding of our human experience. It's not just a book for black kids, although I think a lot of black kids will enjoy it.

There is an interesting biography of Myers at the RandomHouse site, which quotes Myers talking about the difference between the way he was raised and the way his children were raised:
"It seems that one of Myers' greatest struggles was to understand what type of writer he wanted to be. As the years passed and his books became more and more popular, Walter Dean Myers came to believe that his work filled a void for African American youths who yearned for positive reading experiences and role models. He frequently writes about children who share similar economic and ethnic situations with his own childhood. "But my situation as a parent did not mirror that of my childhood," he says. "While my parents were quite poor, my children are thoroughly entrenched in the middle class experience. To them African prints go well with designer jeans, pizzas go down easier to a reggae beat, and shopping malls are an unmistakable part of their culture."
So although Myers clearly is paying attention to the experience of Black youths growing up today, his talent reaches far beyond that to bless us all. Adults as well as young adults who enjoy short stories should look for this collection.

This post is submitted to the November Bookworms Blog Carnival. Here's how
you can join in:

First, the host for the November Bookworms Carnival has had to bow out, but fortunately, the intrepid Myrthe has stepped in to take his place. The theme this month is short stories. You may want to submit a post about short stories, or you may want to submit a short story of your own. The deadline for submission is November 9th. All you have to do is email the link to your post.

Please send your submissions to: armenianodar at yahoo dot com and please also thank Myrthe for stepping in at the last minute!

(copied from the hidden side of a leaf)


Color Online said...

I have recently discovered your blog and I am thoroughly enjoying your honesty, clarity and insight. I recently bought this Dean collection and like you I was hesitant to read it, but my gut said buy it because it is even more challenging to buy multicultural literature when you're running a library with zero dollars.

Back on point, thank you so much for this post. I'm going to look for this in my pile of books not yet shelved. I look forward to the read.



AMY T said...

great review. thank you. I have a fifth grade student right now who finished By Any Means Necessary, Myers' biography of Malcolm X, and is now reading The Beast, a novel by Myers set in Harlem. He was full of sadness when Malcolm X was killed and is finding lots of "text to self" connections with The Beast. I think Myers is one of the best writers creating books these days. I didn't really hope to have any of my ten or eleven year old kids love his writing as much as I do, though. Lucky me.