Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it, #ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
Friendship in the Rearview
By Roxanne Fequiere
As long as you don’t squint too hard, the 1950s still conjure a clean-cut, Norman Rockwell-style portrait in the mind’s eye, all hints of dissent neatly girdled and pomaded away beneath a crisp sense of propriety. The 1960s has a whole View-Master reel of imagery to choose from: the sharp charisma of Camelot, the futuristic optimism of, say, the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, the colorful eruption of youthful energy at decade’s end that led to music festivals and demonstrations and demands for peace and equality, unencumbered by the reins of respectability—all imbued with their own kind of romance and nostalgic appeal. My mother has always raved about the 1970s, but for a long time, all I could see when I thought of the decade was crisis and glitter, polyester and too much hair, an American dream deferred.
My mother came to Brooklyn from Haiti during the early 1970s, met the man who would become her husband in 1976, married in 1977, and had her first child in 1978. Son of Sam, the blackout, Grease, Saturday Night Fever. She describes it all with the same twinkle in her eye. Memory is an odd beast. Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn acknowledges this notion early and often. August, twenty years removed from girlhood, returns to Brooklyn for her father’s funeral and runs into an old friend on the subway, prompting a poetic remembrance of how their friendship came to be.
Eight years old and newly arrived from Tennessee, August is confined to her third-story apartment during the summer of 1973. It’s from her window that she first sees Sylvia, Gigi, and Angela, “dressed in halter tops and shorts, arms linked together, heads thrown back, laughing.” Though August had been warned by her mother to distrust other girls, she finds herself wishing to join their ranks, and one day, her dream comes true. “You belong to us now,” Sylvia says, taking her hand. From then on, the four of them share “the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones...Here. Help me carry this.”
Their world is one of death and religion, absentee parents, strung-out army vets, and girls who get sent Down South if they get knocked up, but their friendship is like a force field that keeps them mostly safe from the perils beyond their doorstep. When misfortune slips beyond the perimeter of their safe circle, threatening to pull one of the girls away, the others are ready with the assertion that everything will be okay. Still, in present day, when August sees Sylvia on the train, she gets off at the next stop to avoid speaking with her. We enter August’s warm recollections of her tight-knit group already knowing that they will unravel. When they do, it’s heartbreaking and tragic, but we know that, even then, the world did not grind to a halt. Life went on; August decides to leave Brooklyn behind, expand her world.
Her first stop is college, where she studies the anthropology of death. Her notes are sprinkled throughout the text: Hindu cremation in India, tree trunk burial near Bali. Another Brooklyn is a coming of age story preoccupied with the ends of things; while reading it, I thought of the seemingly relentless mood of death and stagnation that plagues Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Perhaps an early acquaintance with finality is as much an invitation to succumb to it as it is an opportunity to learn its intricacies and thwart it. Both Francie and August endure.
Despite my mother’s insistence, I didn’t watch Saturday Night Fever until I was well into my twenties. When I did, I was stunned by how somber the whole thing was. Yes, there was dancing and bright lights and Bee Gees-synced pavement pounding, just as I’d been told, but there was also racism and rape and suicide. Clearly, my mother was remembering an entirely different film. Then again, she also used to talk about how she watched the film while she was on her honeymoon—in reality, it was released in theaters seven months after her wedding. She associates the movie, and all the grit and glamour of the decade with her own young adulthood, and the details have been lost to time. As Woodson repeats throughout Another Brooklyn, “This,” with all its gaps and revisions, “is memory.”
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.