Review: Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

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

If I had to describe Another Brooklyn in terms of other books, I would say it lies somewhere between The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and the poetry of Langston Hughes. Jacqueline Woodson’s writing takes the outward shape of prose, but it is imbued with poetry.

It’s a short, quick read. In the first place, it’s less than two hundred pages, but it’s also made up of short paragraphs that are separated by spacing rather than indentation. Even the writing style is a bit “easy come, easy go” — it’s easy to get into, but also easy to put down. For that reason, I would recommend swallowing it whole, if possible. You can easily finish it in one or two afternoons, then go back and reread to soak it in more. I read this book pretty slowly, and that did me a disservice because it was harder for me to remember what happened when I picked it up again.

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August moves to Brooklyn with her father and brother at eight years old in 1973. The story encompasses her girlhood, flush with the affection of her three best friends, Angela, Sylvia, and Gigi. Their bond keeps them afloat through their various personal trials — in August’s case, coming to terms with what happened to her mother. August’s memories of her childhood are bittersweet, though. “What is tragic isn’t the moment,” she narrates. “It is the memory.”

The nostalgia in this book tugged at my heartstrings. In some ways, I could see my young, girlish friendships in August’s little crew. I remember how important it was to have a clique growing up, not for the purpose of excluding others, but as a safe haven. The people you could trust no matter what. In other ways, though, August’s childhood is much darker and shorter than my own. The shadow of her mother’s death hangs over her, and in the streets of Brooklyn lie in wait hardships and experiences that force children to grow up too fast.

As an adult, August’s preoccupation with death has led her to become an anthropologist in study of funerary rituals. Throughout the novel, passages are punctuated with descriptions of death around the world, tinted with suggestions of what customs say about a culture’s attitudes toward life and death. This motif is clever and it certainly works within the context of the story, but for me, it is a touch too on the nose.

The one part of the story that I felt was a bit self-indulgent was toward the very end, when August discovers herself in jazz music. On a structural level, this has the function of closing one of the many circles that Woodson likes to draw in her writing, but in practice, we see August become a moody, artistic young adult who sleeps around and travels the world. Maybe I just don’t have any poetry in my soul, but I feel that the sort of person August becomes as an adult is doing things and liking things in place of having an actual personality. The closest thing we get to a glimpse of August as a settled, self-actualized adult is in a brief meeting with her brother at the beginning of the novel.

Another Brooklyn is a lyrical and neatly constructed story of a childhood in snapshots. In some places there is a flair for style over substance, but it still has a lot of heart. I recommend this if you’re looking for a book that is easy to read, but meaningful and poetic.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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Review: Biography of an American Bondman, by His Daughter, Josephine Brown

Most American students are familiar with the genre of slave narrative. We’ve all at some point been assigned autobiographies such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. These books are the product of a peculiar class of African-Americans, fugitive, yet often famous, risen from ashes to become leaders in the most pivotal movement in American history.

The contents of these books tend to follow similar structures: the horrors of slavery, the moment of enlightenment and desire for freedom, the failed attempt, the daring escape, the perilous journey, and the struggle to establish oneself afterward. Among the pages is usually chronicled the method by which the former slave learned to read, and pleas to the reader against slavery in the name of reason or religion punctuate it all.

There’s a disparity, though.

Writers like Frederick Douglass or the subject of this biography, William Wells Brown, became respected intellectuals in their time. Female authors like Harriet Jacobs or Harriet Wilson, who wrote Our Nig about her indentured servitude in the North, received no such accolades. The most prominent female abolitionist author was always Harriet Beecher Stowe, a white woman. Even famed poet Phillis Wheatley died in poverty. The pre-emancipation manuscripts we have that are written by black women have largely been dug up by historians over one hundred years later.

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Harriet Jacobs wasn’t confirmed as author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl until many years after her death.

The same problem exists for the writings of black men, of course. Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave was also lost to history for a time. Still, the lives and work of black female authors have been systematically devalued to an even greater extent, and during the time of slavery, there was little hope for them to achieve similar literary success to their male counterparts.

Josephine Brown didn’t write in order to get credit for it, that much is clear. At the beginning of the books, she clearly states that the reason for her publishing this biography is that her father’s autobiography was out of print at the time. What follows is a staid, no-frills biography that one would scarcely believe was written by Mr. Brown’s daughter, were it not stated in the title. She takes excerpts from her father’s writings and from critics of his work, transcribing paragraphs at a time without hesitation. Her concern is not literary quality, but rather historical documentation.

Her most egregious fumbling with words takes place in the first chapter, where her hyperbole is particularly effusive. “A finer situation for a farm could scarcely have been selected in any part of the country,” she writes. “…Distinguished for her strength both of body and mind, and a woman of great courage, Elizabeth was considered one of the most valuable slaves on the place. Although Dr. Young was not thought to be the hardest of masters, he nevertheless employed, as an overseer, a man whose acts of atrocity could scarcely have been surpassed in any of the slave States.”

She does include occasional anecdotes, some more believable than others. The story of her father arguing his fare with a white train conductor, for example, seems like it ought to have gotten him arrested rather than a clean moral victory. The tales of his setting up shop as first a barber, then a banker, are similarly lively, but somewhat less outrageous. She also injects a certain amount of family pride into the narrative when she lists the various elites with whom her father hobnobbed in Europe as well as excerpts of glowing reviews of his books.

Brown is not the most engaging writer, but she knows this, and so she keeps her narrative short and to the point, sparing the reader most poor attempts at flourishes. This is a woman who wrote out of necessity, not wanting her father’s efforts to be forgotten, and for that, I admire her.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in African-American history or in slave narratives. It’s a dry but not terrible read that provides valuable historical information.

Rating: 2/5 Stars.

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