It’s funny- when I was reading this book, I had two other books in mind which include ‘Brooklyn’ in their titles. The first was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a coming-of-age story of 11 year old Francie Nolan, the daughter of first-generation migrants to America. I strongly suspect that Jacqueline Woodson had this connection in mind when she named her own semi-biographical coming-of-age story, this time with an African-American protagonist. The second was Jonathan Lethems’ Motherless Brooklyn which doesn’t really have much connection with Woodson’s book beyond the fact that the main character, August, was motherless when her father shifted her from SweetGrove Tennessee to live with her younger brother in Brooklyn.
Forbidden by their father from going down into the streets to play with the other children, August watches three other girls, Sylvia, Angela and Gigi as they amble the neighbourhood streets. As she and her brother gradually achieve more independence, August comes to know the three girls and is embraced into their friendship group.
Each of the other girls has her own tribulations. Angela, who wants to be a dancer, refuses to speak about her mother who is largely absent in her life; Gigi wants to be an actress, and years later is devastated when her friends miss her performance in the school play. Sylvia’s parents want her to be a doctor or lawyer, and ban their daughter from seeing Angela, Gigi and August, but the friendship continues until there is a betrayal of the friendship.
As for August, she cannot believe that her mother will not return one day. Her father and later her brother become involved with Nation of Islam, but her own commitment to Islam is lukewarm. She ends up attending university, loving men and women and gradually accepting her mother’s death.
As a coming-of-age story, the book affirms female friendship, even in a time of increasing sexual experimentation with boys. There is the intimacy of long acquaintance in their friendships, and yet each of them has her own battle. Each of the girls has to find her own way from parental demands, expectations and inadequacies. At a broader level, the book also documents the social and demographic change in Brooklyn, as white residents pack up and move away, and as drug addiction and poverty becomes more entrenched.
The book is simply told in the first person from August’s point of view, with short paragraphs arranged into chapters. The handling of chronology is particularly well done, with flashbacks and flash-forwards. There is a real sense of nostalgia and affection for this younger self.
The book itself is only short at 170 well-spaced pages, and as soon as I finished it, I found myself reading it a second time, to savor how Woodson travelled so far with such simplicity and ease.
My rating: 8.5 /10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
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