This is a beautifully written book. Woodson is known for writing award-winning children’s books; this is her first adult novel in twenty years and was a finalist for the National Book Award. In it she tells the story of August, who returns to Brooklyn for her father’s funeral and runs into an old friend. This sparks memories of her childhood, of losing her mother, moving to Brooklyn, and becoming close friends with three girls in the neighborhood.
The book begins with this:
For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet. Mine could have been a more tragic story. My father could have given in to the bottle or the needle or a woman and left my brother and me to care for ourselves – or worse, in the care of the New York City Children’s Services, where, my father said, there was seldom a happy ending. But this didn’t happen. I know now that what is tragic isn’t the moment. It is the memory.
August’s story is about friendship, family, beauty, love, religion, career, music, and sex. It’s about growing up, and remembering and coming to terms with the hard parts. Behind everything in August’s life is her missing mother.
Woodson’s novel is very much about growing up African-American in Brooklyn. So while I can’t relate that aspect of it, I could relate to quite a lot of it, and I appreciated seeing Brooklyn from Woodson’s perspective. I actually spent the first part of my life in New York City (Flushing, not Brooklyn) and for me, NY holds the kind of faint memories as Tennessee does for August.
I didn’t have the kind of close friends as a child that August has in this book, so I always appreciate a story about friendship. August’s mother tells her not to trust other girls, and she’s both right and wrong on that count. The girls in this story do their best to be there for each other, yet growing up pulls them apart, in a way that feels both inevitable and tragic.
The writing in this book is beautiful, although the story itself is on the slim side. In fact, Woodson tells us only small, tantalizing (and sometimes confusing) amounts of what actually happens to August and her friends as they grow up. Some of it isn’t pleasant; there are men who lurk in stairwells, girls who get pregnant, and parents who insist their daughters follow the life they intend for them. It’s the kind of book that, like Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, makes you feel like you need to read it again to really understand it.
In the end it’s a book about how our memories of childhood stay with us always, and never stop influencing who we are.