By Jacqueline Woodson
$16.99, 192 pages
Jacqueline Woodson is a legend in the YA literature world, with a long list of novels that have won every major YA and children’s literature award. Her last novel, Brown Girl Dreaming, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2014. She has distinguished herself by respecting her readers’ intelligence and maturity, addressing issues like race and class, domestic abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, gender issues, and adolescent sexuality.
After 20 years, Woodson has written a novel for adults. And while Another Brooklyn retains her trademark concerns and powerful prose style, it digs deeper, pulls fewer punches, and features an adult protagonist looking back at her formative years.
When 35-year-old August returns to Brooklyn for her father’s funeral and to sort through his apartment, she has a brief encounter with an old friend on the subway. This launches her into an exploration of her early years in Brooklyn and the power of memory. It’s a useful framing device that carries readers into August’s life story and allows her both to describe her experiences and comment on them with the benefit of 20 years.
When August’s mother descends from depression into despair and serious mental illness her brother Clyde is killed in the Vietnam War, her father decides to flee their home in rural Tennessee and take August and her younger brother back to his hometown of Brooklyn. It is 1973 and August is 8; her brother is four. She doesn’t understand the nature of her mother’s condition and tells herself and her brother that their mother will be coming “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” It is an ominous allusion.
Having landed in a dangerous new urban world, August and her brother are kept in the apartment by her father. They are on the inside looking out at the neighborhood and its denizens. August’s eye is caught by three seemingly inseparable girls. In her dreamy mind, they are like the Three Musketeers without D’Artagnan.
“Before they were mine,” August tells us, “I stared at their necks, watched their perfect hands close around jump ropes and handballs, saw their brightly polished nails. . . I watched them, wanting to have what they had. . . But as I watched Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi walk past our window, I was struck with something deeply unfamiliar–a longing to be part of who they were, to link my own arm with theirs and remain that way. Forever.”
In time she meets and is adopted by the trio, who decide August needs to be rescued because, among other things, she has no mother. Sylvia came to Brooklyn the previous year from Martinique, speaking French; she has lost the language but retained an accent. Her parents are intellectuals who want her to become a lawyer. Gigi, from South Carolina, is dark-skinned, with Chinese and mulatto ancestry, and wants to be not just an actress but a movie star. The light-skinned, melancholy Angela dreams of being a dancer.
Woodson places us inside August’s mind as their circle of friendship and love develops in their pre-teen and teen years. Naive, sheltered August soon learns that Brooklyn is an often desperate place, with varying levels of poverty, wandering hallucinatory junkies, and verbally and physically abusive boys and men seemingly around every corner and in every dark stairwell.
“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 soldier or ashy-kneed, hungry child could have told us this.”
The girls share everything: their dreams, their frustrations, their fears, their family difficulties, their crushes on boys. They encourage each other with their words and physical affection ranging from hugs to braiding each other’s hair. The challenges of “adults promising us their own failed futures.” Temptation is everywhere, from junk food and cigarettes to drugs and boys with a lupine look in their eyes.
As they begin the transition to adolescence, August explains, “We tried to hold on. We played double Dutch and jacks. We chased the ice cream truck down the block, waving our change-filled fists. We frog-jumped over tree stumps, pulled each other into gushing fire hydrants, learned to dance the Loose Booty to Sly and the Family Stone, hustled to Van McCoy. We bought t-shirts with our names and zodiac signs in iron-on letters. But still, as we slipped deeper into twelve our breasts and butts grew. Our legs got long. Something about the curve of our lips and the sway of our heads suggested more to strangers than we understood. And then we were heading toward thirteen, walking our neighborhood as if we owned it. Don’t even look at us, we said to the boys, our palms up in front of our faces. Look away look away look away!”
Woodson captures the 1970s and sense of place with exactitude. I was 14 in 1973 and I grew up 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles, but I know these girls; Woodson’s detailed descriptions of the adolescent life at that time ring true.
More importantly, Woodson captures the deep adolescent yearning to become. . . something, someone, and the sense of being lost at sea in the act of trying to create oneself. August never quite grasps that her mother’s absence is permanent, and her ghost haunts her youth and this novel. And there is a sense of foreboding about the girls’ relationship, set off by the adult August’s uncomfortable and purposely brief encounter with Sylvia at the start of the book. There are a thousand things that can cause teenage relationships to go awry and only a handful that hold them together into adulthood with its manifold changes.
August finds a way to navigate through high school and into college and a career, both of which were beyond the younger August’s capability to dream. She becomes someone she never envisioned but seems in many senses to have been destined for. Returning to “another Brooklyn” twenty years later, at age 35, doesn’t quite bring her or the story full circle, for life is not quite that neat and Woodson not that superficial a storyteller.
Like Brown Girl Dreaming, which is written in verse form, Another Brooklyn is as impressionistic as memory; the narrative moves back and forth in time and place through August’s stream of consciousness. Ann Patchett correctly describes Another Brooklyn as “a sort of fever dream.” Woodson’s writing is prose-poetry of the highest order; it begs to be read repeatedly, and aloud. Woodson told NPR’s Lynn Neary in a recent interview that her words have to look and sound a certain way. “I love playing with form, I love playing with sounds,” Woodson said. “I love music and I love writing that has musicality to it. The book does have this kind of jazzy feel to me.”
With Another Brooklyn, Woodson has given us a much-needed look into the lives of four young black girls in 1970s Brooklyn that is universal in its message and appeal. This white, 50-something man who grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles found it a deeply affecting read. I suspect that, like its YA predecessors, it will soon be considered a contemporary classic among coming-of-age novels.
This review was originally published on August 22, 2016.