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Posts Tagged ‘coming of age’

another“This is memory.”  So says the narrator of Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn (HarperCollins, purchased e-book), her first novel for adults in 20 years. As haunting as her memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, which won a National Book Award for YA literature last year, it reads like a prose poem. Narrator August spins her story of girlhood, friendship and loss in a series of  lyrical vignettes that slip dreamily through time and memory.

“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.

This is narrator August in the first chapter, looking back 20-some years to the 1970s, when her father uprooted her and younger brother from Tennessee and brought them to a Bushwick apartment. Now an anthropologist who researches funeral customs in different countries, she is back in Brooklyn to help her brother bury their father. A chance encounter with a girlhood friend sends her on an odyssey into the past, but not before she elliptically foreshadows some of its darkness.

At 11, August and her three friends function almost as a single entity, braving the watchful eyes of neighborhood boys and men, shrugging off the private griefs of family. They listen to Al Green, trade clothes, share hopes and secrets. They laugh, and they reassure one another about their looks and their futures. Gigi wants to be an actress. Angela can dance, really dance. Sylvia’s father wants her to be a lawyer. August wants to be Sylvia, beautiful and brilliant.

“Everywhere we looked, we saw people trying to dream themselves out. As though there was someplace other than this place. As though there was another Brooklyn.”

Their Brooklyn has disabled Vietnam vets, drug addicts, working girls who lose their children to social services, a rapist in a basement stairwell who catches Gigi when she is 12. She doesn’t tell anybody but her girls, saying her mama would just put the blame on her.  The foursome try to hold on to childhood, playing jacks and running after the ice cream truck. But then the teenage boys come, stealing kisses in the dark and wanting more. First love is “terrifying and perfect.” Betrayal is a wound. Memory is a bruise.

Woodson’s time-shifting narrative is compact and compressed, years invoked and imagined in a few vivid sentences. I loved every word.

 

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millvalleyWhen she’s 11 and selling corn from a roadside stand, Mimi Miller knows her place in the world — the same small farm in Pennsylvania her family’s owned for 200 years. The flood-prone area is even known as Miller’s Valley. But only a few years later, Mimi already is missing the girl she used to be. “Getting older wasn’t working out so well for me.” Her best friend Donald has moved away, and so has her oldest brother, Edward. Her other brother, charming Tommy, has joined the Marines, gotten a local girl in trouble, been sent to Vietnam, gotten into drugs. Rumors that the government is going to flood the valley under a water-management plan are firming into facts. The ground even feels soggier. Mimi’s father lives in a state of denial and keeps the sump pumps running. Her mother refuses to get involved. “Let the water cover the whole damn place,” she says. About the only thing that hasn’t changed is that Aunt Ruth, her mother’s sister, still  refuses to leave the small house at the back of the Millers, even when floodwaters send her to the attic.

Anna Quindlen’s emotionally resonant new novel, Miller’s Valley (Random House, digital galley), is a coming-of-age novel distinguished by the intimate voice of narrator Mimi and a specificity of detail and image. The fog can lie “as thick as cotton candy” on the valley floor, a neighbor woman is remembered for “her lavender smell and warm pies.” When Tommy comes home, he has “a tough little barking laugh. . . a mean second cousin to a real laugh.” But Tommy also warns Mimi not to get sidetracked by her boyfriend, an older construction worker with whom she’s in love and lust. Tommy wants Mimi to concentrate on getting out of Miller’s Valley. “Don’t get stuck.” Mimi’s good grades and a college scholarship are going to be her way out, until a family crisis throws up a roadblock.

Families, friends, first loves, old secrets. Quindlen’s story flows like the rising river, moving faster as it nears the end. A mystery surfaces unexpectedly, and Mimi must decide whether to pursue it or to let it go, even as she tries to find traction on the slippery slope of change, at home in a world both familiar and strange.

 

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