For August, running into a long-ago friend sets in motion resonant memories and transports her to a time and a place she thought she had mislaid: 1970s Brooklyn, where friendship was everything. August, Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi shared confidences as they ambled their neighborhood streets, a place where the girls believed that they were amazingly beautiful, brilliantly talented, with a future that belonged to them. But beneath the hopeful promise there was another Brooklyn, a dangerous place where grown men reached for innocent girls in dark hall-ways, where mothers disappeared, where fathers found religion, and where madness was a mere sunset away.
Somehow, my brother and I grew up motherless yet halfway whole. My brother had the faith my father brought him to, and for a long time, 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."
For a long time, August watches Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi from her window, but one day she is accepted into their social circle. Every one of them wants to give the impression of having it all together, when in reality each girl is faced with family issues, economic issues, or both. They journey together into their teens, their sexuality emerging and presenting still more issues to grapple with. They support one another, and they work against one another, too -- again, Woodson brilliantly captures the power of female friendship. Her writing is sublime. Just read this book and let it wash over you.
The girls' experiences match the changes and increasing danger in their neighborhood, as their developing bodies and sexuality put them at greater risk by predatory boys and men who wish to claim their innocence and derail their promising futures.
The novel consists of short paragraphs, narrated in the first person by August, with evocative descriptions of the city and the music of the time that somewhat reminded me of my own considerably less troubled childhood living in nearby Jersey City in the early 1970s, particularly when August mentions her Close 'N Play record player, which I received as a birthday present in 1969.
Another Brooklyn is another solid effort by Woodson, whose previous young adult novel Brown Girl Dreaming won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2014. Although I wasn't moved as much by her latest work, it was still a memorable read, which I would highly recommend to everyone.
Her latest book, Another Brooklyn, isn’t in verse but it somehow reads like it is.
In other words it is lyrical and it is stunning.
Running into an old friend on a train triggers memories, both good and bad, for August, who is in Brooklyn to bury her father.
In 1973, aged eight, August, her four-year-old brother and her father move from Tennessee to Brooklyn, New York, after her mother starts hearing the voice of her dead brother Clyde, who was killed in the Vietnam War. In a new city, a new apartment, August and her brother are friendless, unsure of themselves. But she soon falls into a group of three girls: “Sylvia, Angela, Gigi, August. We were four girls together, amazingly beautiful and terrifyingly alone.”
And they navigate their world of growing up as girls, trying to find their place in this world, in 1970s Brooklyn, with absent mothers, drugs, uncertainty, and changing times.
Another Brooklyn is a collection of memories and a wonderful freeflow of vignettes past and present.
I may not have grown up in 1970s Brooklyn but a story like this, told with such grace and power, with brevity and confidence, just carries the reader in, fills her with emotions, and doesn’t let go.
Woodson always makes me feel nostalgic for my own childhood and teen years in 1970s NYC. This book is an ode to girlhood, to hanging out with your best friends, to roaming the neighborhood and the parks because it was still mostly safe, discovering boys, and the music that made the 70s.
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.
Mine could have been a more tragic story. My father could have given in to the bottle or the needle or a woman and left my brother and me to care for ourselves...
I loved Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming and this is the second book I’ve read by her. It seems suited to YA or adult readers -- the coming-of-age is more mature than in Brown Girl Dreaming, the story and style more opaque, the tone more melancholy than optimistic. While neither book portrays a childhood full of happiness, both develop a wonderful feeling of family care and safety. I so look forward to more by Woodson.
(Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.)
This book is written as a series of memories, and that is clear not only because we first meet an adult August who has returned to Brooklyn. Her memories are told as memories occur, with some crystal clear details popping through a haze of events and emotions that are no longer clear, but that are a part of August nonetheless.
Decades later, August runs into Sylvia in the subway. The chance meeting brings all the memories of what happened to them (and other young poor-ish black girls in Brooklyn) as they came into their mid-teens.
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.”
The beauty of this book is the way in which Woodson allows the unspoken words to do most of the talking. It's a story of forgotten memories and of new memories. While I was not as blown away by this book as many have been, it does become richer after allowing it to settle in my mind for a while.
I especially liked the references made to songs of the 70's, Rock the Boat, Minnie Riperton and Al Green, they all added to the authenticity of the era.
"We had blades inside our kneesocks and were growing our nails long. We were learning to walk the Brooklyn streets as though we had always belonged to them—our voices loud, our laughter even louder.
"But Brooklyn had longer nails and sharper blades. Any strung-out solider or ashy-kneed, hungry child could have told us this." (p. 61)
"Because Bushwick had once been a forest and we had been called ghetto girls even though we were beautiful and our arms were locked together and our T-shirts blazed our names and zodiac signs." (pp. 154–155)
"On a different planet, we could have been Lois Lane or Tarzan’s Jane or Mary Tyler Moore or Marlo Thomas. We could have thrown our hats up, twirled and smiled. We could have made it after all. We watched the shows. We knew the songs. We sang along when Mary was big-eyed and awed by Minneapolis. We dreamed with Marlo of someday hitting the big time. We took off with the Flying Nun. But we were young. And we were on earth, heading home to Brooklyn."
Woodson is a talented writer. In the afterward, she shares:
"A writer writes to hold on. I wanted the Bushwick of my childhood remembered on the page—so I created four girls who were fascinating and foreign to me, stepping far outside of my own childhood. Then I sat them down in a neighborhood that was once as familiar to me as air."
Highly recommend this finalist for the 2016 National Book Award.
In Another Brooklyn, YA author and poet Jackie Woodson has written a novel of memories, a narrative with poetic sensibilities, a story of fighting to belong to a brother, a group of three other girls, a father, and a mother who lost her grip on the world when her own brother died fighting in Vietnam.
We learn early on that the grown narrator still loves her brother, even though they live separate lives, separate realities. Riding the subway, August sees one of those three girls who were once as close as sisters to her. She strides off the subway a stop early, even though that once close-girl, recognizable even in her womanhood, starts to greet August.
"Where would we be now if we had known there was a melody to our madness?"
This is the story of what happened to the girls. They cope with becoming young women even as they navigate a Brooklyn filled with heroin-addled Vietnam vets, dirty old men who would pay a quarter to look up their dresses and a prostitute with two young children who lives in the apartment below that shared by August, her brother and father.
"For God so loved the world, their father would say, he gave his only begotten son. But what about the daughters, I wondered. What did God do with his daughters?"
The girls each have dreams, although not every one will see hers come true. And here are boys, boys who want to be men, boys who are enchanted by them, boys who make them want to sing and dance and perhaps become women. August and her brother, when they first move to Brooklyn from a failing Tennessee farm, watch the other three girls saunter down the street like they own the world. When school starts, she is adopted by the group.
"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. And hungry, Angela added. You looked so hungry."
As they grow and change, as their families let them down or build them up, the girls store memories of what they are living. Those memories, and the clouded ones August brought to Brooklyn with her, that eventually clear as she grows, form the core of this book.
"Everywhere we looked, we saw the people trying to dream themselves out. As though there was someplace other than this place. As though there was another Brooklyn."
This is the first adult work Woodson has published in years. For adult readers, it would fit in well with her last book, the remarkable poetical memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming. But even without that earlier, award-winning book, Another Brooklyn paints a portrait of moments in time that shape the woman its narrator has become.