When this very short book begins, August, an anthropologist, has attended the funeral of her father in Brooklyn, a place she had not returned to in a couple of decades. While riding the train to her father’s home to go through his things, she explores her memories, sparked by the sighting of one of her old friends who is sitting in the same subway car. The reader is given a window into the world of the ghetto in Brooklyn, with all of its hidden and overt dangers in the 1970’s.
As a child, in the middle of the night, she and her brother were spirited away from their idyllic, lakeside life in Tennesee, all the way to Brooklyn, New York, by their father. Their mother had become unstable since the death of her brother in Vietnam. She believed he was still alive and she had conversations with him in which he issued warnings to her and advised her about the imagined sins of her husband. She went to bed with a knife beside her.
When they arrived in Brooklyn, the children, 8 and 4, had to make a big adjustment to their lifestyle. Often forbidden from leaving the house, they simply stared at life outside, from their window. Previously, they had been able to run freely on their Tennessee property. August kept reassuring her younger brother that their mother woulg return, and for years, she refused to accept the fact that she would not be coming back.
August makes several good friends, and they share their ideas and dreams as they grow up and enter puberty complete with the developing body and desires of women. How they fare in their lives is an interesting part of this story. The neighborhood they lived in is poor, but they were not desperate. They saw others who were far worse off. They, at least, had food and clothing and shelter. They could enjoy an ice cream. Their world is very different than their world had been in Tennessee, but they were adjusting.
August’s father found religion as did her brother. They followed The Nation of Islam. When as a teenager, August retreated and stopped communicating, her father arranged for her to see a fellow, female member of The Nation. There was also a woman who helped in the house who wore traditional garb. August is told that her body is a temple that she should protect. She was also taught about what was considered a proper diet to follow. Some foods were forbidden.
With a spare prose, Woodson quietly describes this child’s growth and view of the world in the 1970’s as the whites exited their neighborhoods when people of color moved in, as ghettos formed and wars were fought which took many of their neighbor’s lives and limbs. Returning soldiers and single mothers descended into a world of poverty, drugs and prostitution. Danger lurked in unsuspected places. The story reveals the dreams of August and her friends, talented and bright, but who did not always realize that there were consequences for the choices that they made.
I grew up in Brooklyn, although I left about a decade before the time of the book. When August reviewed her memories of Coney Island and when song names were mentioned and the Blackout of most of New York City was described, I grew nostalgic and my memory was also reawakened. I remembered the boardwalk, and the music. However, I remember the major blackout of 1965, more fully, in which the entire Northeast went dark, not just a large part of New York City, which took place in 1977 and must be the one August details.
This book is thought provoking with very few words. It is read eloquently by the same woman who read Negroland by Margo Jefferson. Her name is Robin Miles and she is fast becoming one of my favorite narrators.