brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl DreamingBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

My only reading goal for 2015 is to read more poetry. Without design—just luck of the queue at the library—brown girl dreaming, a memoir in verse, was the first book that landed in my hands this year. There is something sublime in that serendipity. Each and every page of brown girl dreaming is a gift of wisdom and innocence and discovery. Heartbreak. Joy. Family. Loneliness. Childhood. History. I savored and smiled as I read. I wept. After I read it, I rushed out to buy a copy for myself. I wish I could buy copies for the world.

 

The book’s opening poem signals the story Jacqueline Woodson seeks to tell:

I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital
Columbus, Ohio,
USA—
A country caught

Between Black and White.

 

Woodson reminds us that when she was born in 1963, “…only seven years had passed since Rose Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus” in Montgomery, Alabama. The author, too, is of the South, but also of the Midwest and of the North. She moved with her mother, sister, and brother to Greenville, South Carolina—to her mother’s family—when she was a toddler, and then to Brooklyn, New York in elementary school.

 

brown girl dreaming is also the story of a little girl finding her voice. In Woodson’s case, it was the discovery that words and stories belonged to her—she just needed the time to meet them on her own terms:

I am not my sister.
Words from the books curl around each other
make little sense
until
I read them again
and again, the story
settling into memory. Too slow my teacher says.
Read Faster.
Too babyish, the teacher says.
Read older.
But I don’t want to read faster or older or
any way else that might
make the story disappear too quickly from where
it’s settling
inside my brain,
slowly becoming a part of me.
A story I will remember
long after I’ve read it for the second, third,
tenth, hundredth time.

 

There is such joy and love in her verse, a profound appreciation for her family and for the places that make up her visions of home. She writes of her mother’s parents in South Carolina:

So the first time my mother goes to New York City
we don’t know to be sad, the weight
of our grandparents’ love like a blanket
with us beneath it,
safe and warm.

And of Brooklyn:

We take our food out to her stoop just as the grown-ups
start dancing merengue, the women lifting their long dresses
to show off their fast-moving feet,
the men clapping and yelling,
Baila! Baila! until the living room floor disappears.

 

 

You may find brown girl dreaming on the fiction shelves of bookstores and libraries, for it is classified as a “fictionalized memoir.” Leaving aside debates of genre, it is far more likely to find a readership from these fiction shelves, and that is a good and necessary thing. Memoir and free verse may seem like odd companions, particularly in a book meant for younger readers, but oh, what a stellar opportunity to read and teach the power of poetry.

 

brown girl dreaming received the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and is ostensibly a book meant for middle-grade readers, but it is timeless in its grace and eloquence. I recommend it to everyone, regardless of age.

 

Were I a pre-teen, I know I’d be reading this at every available moment: at the breakfast table, on the bus, in the cafeteria, in my room instead of suffering through long division homework and answering questions on the Emancipation Proclamation at the end of chapter 27 in my Social Studies text. The intimacy and immediacy of brown girl dreaming feels like a secret passed between BFFs, a Technicolor “now” of an After-School Special, the story of an American kid my age that is at once familiar in emotion and exotic in setting.

 

Were I the parent of a pre-teen or a younger child, we would read this together, for this is the history of America in the 1960s, and it offers so many of those “teachable moments”: opportunities to reach for history books, to seek out primary sources, to watch videos of speeches and documentaries of a time that is both distant, yet still very much at hand. The same would hold true for a book club of adults. brown girl dreaming can serve as a touchstone for African-American literature and history, which is our shared history.

 

As an adult, I read this with humility and wonder, enchanted by the voice of young Jacqueline Woodson as she discovers the importance of place, self, family, and words. As a writer, I am awed and overjoyed by the beauty of her language, by the richness of her verse.

Even the silence
has a story to tell you.
Just listen. Listen.

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Book Review: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the WestBlood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

They passed through a highland meadow carpeted with wildflowers, acres of golden groundsel and zinnia and deep purple gentian and wild vines of blue morninglory and a vast plain of varied small blooms reaching onward like a gingham print to the farthest serried rimlands blue with haze and the adamantine ranges rising of out nothing like the backs of seabeasts in a Devonian dawn.

I read this and I marvel. How does one writer, equipped with the same words, the same semantic possibilities as any, know to string these particular words together in just this way, paragraph after paragraph, page after page? My copy of Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 classic Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West is mauled by dog-eared pages and inked underlines as I seek to capture and remember his revelatory images of the borderlands of the Southwest and the astonishing employ of English that feels primordial under his pen.

Once again, Cormac McCarthy tears me apart, digs at the darkest corners of despair and depravity in my mind, poking and prodding with a sharp stick as I wince and try to turn away. Yet unlike The Road, a black and white dystopian nightmare which offers redemption through the steadfast love of its principal characters, Blood Meridian is merciless Technicolor nihilism. Each character explores the vast possibilities of evil as McCarthy pulls the reader through the reeking entrails of history.

They found the lost scouts hanging head downward from the limbs of a fireblacked paloverde tree. They were skewered through the cords of their heels with sharpened shuttles of green wood and they hung gray and naked above the dead ashes of the coals where they’d been roasted until their heads had charred and the brains bubbled in the skulls and steam sang from their noseholes. Their tongues were drawn out and held with sharpened sticks thrust through them and they had been docked of their ears and their torsos were sliced open with flints until the entrails hung down their chests.

Blood Meridian is based on historical accounts of the Glanton Gang, a band of mercenaries that roamed the Texas-Mexico borderland in the mid-19th century, trading scalps for gold. Their initial objective was the pursuit of hostile Indian warriors who reigned by terror throughout the Borderlands. Eventually the crew of ex-soldiers, escaped slaves, convicts, marginalized immigrants, disenfranchised Indians and plain old thugs extended their quest for carnage to peaceful, agrarian Mexicans and Native Americans on both sides of the still-disputed border.

To read three hundred and fifty pages of unrelenting brutality, I have to give myself up to the prose, which is beautiful and original beyond compare, and to what I think the author sought to accomplish with his symphony of violence. I believe McCarthy offers the absolute opposite of the glorification of violence – he depicts horror to force the acknowledgment of it. His stories are blood-curdling pleas to recognize that we – as a nation, as a measure of humanity – are built on the back of history’s corpses. He decries the chest-thumping patriotism that is endemic to nations which claim moral superiority, generally by citing some sort of divine right. Scholar Sara Spurgeon in a critical essay of Blood Meridian (“The Sacred Hunter and the Eucharist of the Wilderness: Mythic Reconstructions in Blood Meridian”) declares the novel a “a sort of antimyth of the West.” There are no good guys in McCarthy’s depiction of the American West: there are only amoral murderers and the victims of their bloodlust. “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn.” Cunning words, spoken by a character who is the book’s Satan incarnate, its maniacal resident philosopher.

The danger of a book like this is that the reader must detach to make it through the gore. In comparison to The Road, where humility and love are present on every page and you have a sense the writer is suffering and weeping with you, the substance of Blood Meridian risks being subsumed by its intense and unrelenting style.

But without question Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West is yet another McCarthy entry in the canon of Great North American Literature.

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