The year my mother started hearing voices from her dead brother Clyde, my father moved my own brother and me from our SweetGrove land in Tennessee to Brooklyn. It was the summer of 1973 and I was eight years old, my younger brother four, his thumb newly moving to his mouth in the hot city, his eyes wide and frightened.
To say that Jacqueline Woodson’s novel Another Brooklyn is poetic is not simply a nod to the beauty of her language, but a realization that the novel is structured around short prose flashes – rarely even a full page long, often a single line. These slowly construct a story about 4 girls growing up in the Bed Stuy of the 1970s, with a heavy emphasis on how friendship – especially among girls – was necessary for survival.
There are glimpses of life in Tennessee, of the aftermath of the Vietnam War and of the importance of the Nation of Islam to that community. There are brief scenes that build a narrative, but only the narrator, August, becomes a full-fledged character. Her father and mother appear intermittently, but more as images than characters, while her brother and her three friends, Sylvia, Angela and Gigi come across more as forces for good, sources of strength than as people. Everyone is beautiful, even the junkies and rapists that appear regularly on the periphery of Auggie’s life.
There is a good deal of music. The birth of rap makes a ripple in the lives of these girls, but they are more interested in r&b and at least Auggie slowly comes to love jazz. Jazz becomes a symbol for the ability to improvise and survive and the novel's structure is meant to nod to jazz's structure. That structure is careful and impressive – looking back over the opening pages made clear how neatly subsequent surprises had been built.
While there is a good deal of tragedy here, ultimately this is a story of survival and I was compelled to keep reading to learn how Auggie survives; in fact, I was much more moved by her survival than by the tragedies that befall other characters.