This moving, lyrical novel tells the story of August, who moved to Brooklyn from Tennessee in 1973 at age 8 with her 4-year-old brother and their father. Woodson employs dream-like free verse to conjure up an era punctuated by conflicts in class, race, and gender, PTSD from the Vietnam War, depression, suicide, and black empowerment. Yet at no time does one get the impression that the author is packing her book with “issues” to be relevant. Rather, it seems like a strikingly real portrait, albeit filtered through the gauzy veil of poetic language. The beauty of the words softens the harshness of their meaning, and the brevity of the stanzas lends a snapshot effect to the prose. It is as if we are looking at a picture album of times gone by.
In the story, August, now in her thirties, has returned to Brooklyn for her father’s funeral, and is thinking back on her coming of age in Brooklyn, when she made a group of close friends and confronted the truths about her life and theirs she had been reluctant to face.
She tells us how she made friends with Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi:
“. . . as we stood half circle in the bright school yard, we saw the lost and beautiful and hungry in each of us. We saw home.”
They grew up, reached puberty, and for a while they straddled the two worlds of girlhood and being adults:
“When we weren’t practicing walking in Gigi’s mother’s shoes, we were little girls in Mary Janes and lace-up sneakers.”
But when they turned thirteen, August recalled:
“It seemed wherever we were, there were hands and tongues. There were sloe-eyes and licked lips. Wherever our new breasts and lengthening thighs moved.”
When the girls were alone, they folded their arms across their breasts, “praying for invisibility.”
The changes in the girls unfolded against a backdrop of changes in Brooklyn, with more and more white people leaving, and mistrust between the races increasing.
How well Woodson captures the general mood of the times, recalling that “[t]hat year, every song was telling some part of our story.” This was of course a sentiment shared by all the races, one that still persists and helps makes each generation so attached to the music of its own time. And it suggests one of the themes running through the story: “At some point, all of this, everything and everyone, became memory.”
Evaluation: No one familiar with the work of Jacqueline Woodson will be surprised at the virtuosity of her writing and her storytelling technique. For anyone who wants to know what it was like in the 1970’s, and how much has both changed and not changed in tensions between races and genders, this short book is an excellent introduction. As a poignant story of the families we have and the families we create, it is just lovely. And as a reconciliation of the past, and remembrance, it offers insight and understanding. As August muses, “I know now that what is tragic isn’t the moment. It is the memory.”
Published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2016