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Book Review: The Street by Ann Petry (The Real Help Reading Project)

December 10, 2011 4 comments

Black woman in red bandana in a window.Summary:
In 1944 Lutie Johnson believes that all it takes is hard work to succeed, so when she finds an apartment in Harlem that she can move into with her son, Bub, she sees it as a step up.  Get him away from her dad’s gin-drinking girlfriend and all the roomers packed in the house.  But it seems as though her hard work does nothing against the street and the walls that the white people build around the colored people brick by brick.

Discussion:
It’s hard to believe that Amy and I only have three books left after this in our project.  Although we rather arbitrarily assigned the order of the books, I’m glad this one came toward the end.  I doubt I would have understood the events in it or valued its perspective as much without the nonfiction reading we did prior.

The book is exquisite in the way it demonstrates how a racist society tears families apart.  Hearing about black men being unable to find work in our nonfiction readings felt so cold and stark; I was left unable to understand why that would cause a man to leave his family.  But through Lutie I came to understand.  At first she doesn’t understand how her husband could cheat on her and be so fine with them breaking up, but eventually she does understand.  He couldn’t find work in the city as a black man.  She finds work as a maid in a white family’s house.  She’s gone most of the time.  He feels emasculated.  Now, I know my feminist followers will object to this, but I remind you, this was not a choice on black families’ parts back then.  It was forced upon them.  Anything that is forced upon you can cause real self-esteem problems.  As Lutie says, how can one manage a family in conditions like that?

Petry also clearly demonstrates how this break up of the home then leads to a generation of lost children.  with Lutie working all day, her son, Bub, comes home to an empty, dank apartment.  He takes up with the wrong crowds, because it’s scary to be in the apartment alone.  He’s only eight.  It’s easy to understand how he makes bad judgment calls, especially when his mother is constantly worrying about money around him.  Seeing it spelled out with “real” people makes it all more understandable than the numbers and statistics found in Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow.  In Lutie’s case, her family fell apart twice before she even really realized it was happening.

The other strong element in this book was the hopelessness of the capitalistic American Dream.  Not just the hopelessness of it, but the harmfulness of it.  Lutie herself realizes that she never thought of anything but keeping her family afloat until going to work for the wealthy white family in Connecticut where she “learned” that all it takes is hard work and perseverance to become wealthy.  What a false lesson.  What a horrible thing to believe at face value.  Yet, Lutie does, and it influences almost every single decision she makes for herself and Bub that leads to their ultimate downfall.  Yes, part of their downfall is absolutely brought about by racism, but part is brought about by her believing in the system and not rebelling against it.

For instance, instead of spending what little time she does have outside of work with Bub teaching him and helping him, Lutie spends it pursuing a singing career.  After being gone working in civil services all day, she leaves Bub alone at night yet again.  Similarly, she penny-pinches and yells at Bub so much that Bub starts to believe that they are desperate for money, when in fact his mother is just attempting to save up to move to a better neighborhood.  I get the value of a better neighborhood, but I think Lutie underestimates the value of her own impact on her son.  She studies angrily at night instead of making the studying a bonding thing.  She tells him he can’t stay up and read because of the cost of the electricity, which just blew my mind because you would think she would want him to read.  It all adds up until Bub is not only almost constantly alone but also worrying about money at the age of eight.  I can’t help but think if Lutie had just focused on making their home the best she could and making Bub feel happy and safe that it might have come out better.  I’m not judging Lutie.  It’s so incredibly easy to get caught up in the capitalistic belief system, especially when you’ve been scrambling your whole life and see money as a way to combat racism.  I found myself constantly wishing and hoping that Lutie would stumble across some sort of progressive society that would help her fight for justice.  Of course, in the real world, that doesn’t often happen, and Petry does an amazing job depicting real life in the real Harlem of the 1940s.

Of course, Lutie and her family are not the only ones unhappy.  Although she only works for them for a few chapters in the book, the white family from Connecticut is profoundly unhappy, and Lutie sees it.  The husband and wife ignore each other.  The husband is a raging alcoholic.  The wife is so focused on affairs that she ignores her son.  The son just wants attention and can only get it from the maid.  The brother-in-law kills himself on Christmas morning.

Why do I bother pointing this out?  Well, it’s just further evidence the constant theme throughout our reading project.  Racism and inequality hurt everyone in the society.  Some more than others, yes, but it hurts everyone.  The true values of life–love, time, companionship, laughter–they’re lost amidst the fight to maintain inequality and acquire money.  And that’s largely what slavery was all about, wasn’t it?  Establishing a plantation to become filthy rich instead of a farm where you make ends meet.  And the perceived need for a plantation leads to a desire for cheap labor which leads to slavery which leads to maintaining racism in your head to justify it.  And after Emancipation, the desire to hold onto your filthy wealth leads you to judge others as below you when they’re not.  And racism is an “easy” way to do that.

But where does that leave those caught in the system?  For Lutie, it leaves her a truly lost cause and her son yet another black boy with a record.  Revolution and change takes time, effort, bravery.  Even in the simple day to day decision to choose quality time over money.  To choose to go against the American, consumer grain and just try to make a quality life for yourself.  It’s fascinating and appalling how deeply entrenched in our culture the perception of wealth equaling quality of life is, yet it’s there.  I think, to me, that is what is most appalling in the idea of “The Help.”  Most people do not need a maid.  Unless you are in a wheelchair or missing limbs or blind or have some other physical limitation, you do not need a maid.  And yet some classes of society view it as necessary to make someone else clean up after them in their own home.  Nobody is above cleaning up the filth from themselves and their own family.  Nobody.  And in the meantime, those that they hire to clean it up must do double-duty and clean up two homes and are left without enough energy for quality time with their own family.  It honestly disgusts me.

Source: Public Library

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Book Review: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut

September 6, 2010 6 comments

Book cover with a large blue V and a pig wearing pearls.Summary:
A satire on free enterprise, money, and capitalism in America told by examining the fictional Rosewaters–an uber-wealthy American family whose ancestor acquired his wealth essentially by profiteering during the Civil War.  The current Rosewater fights in WWII and returns with this crazy idea that everyone deserves to be equally happy and people who inherited wealth did nothing to deserve it.  He responds to this conundrum of conscience by returning to his ancestor’s hometown and using the Rosewater Foundation to help the “useless poor.”  In the meantime, a lawyer by the name of Mushari decides to attempt to prove that Mr. Rosewater is insane, and the foundation money should be handed off to his cousin, currently a suicidal, middle-class insurance man.

Review:
How to review Vonnegut?  Upheld (at my university anyway) as the epitome of great American writing.  He is certainly prolific, and some of his books absolutely deserve the high praise (Slaughterhouse-Five springs to mind).  I don’t feel that this novel lives up to his reputation, however.  I was left feeling that I somehow had missed his point.  That he was attempting to make some high and mighty, heavy-handed vision known to me, and it just didn’t come through.

I think part of the problem stems from the fact that the first third of the book is focused on Eliot Rosewater, the next on his cousin, and the last on Eliot again.  Just as I was getting into Eliot’s story, it switched to his cousin.  Then when I was getting into his cousin’s story, it switched back to Eliot.  To top it all off, the ending left me with little to no resolution on either one.  Maybe Vonnegut’s point is that capitalism either makes you crazy or depressed with no way out?  I’m not sure.

That’s not to say that this wasn’t a fun read, though.  Vonnegut crafts the mid-western town Eliot lives in and the Rhodes Island seacoast town his cousin lives in with delicious detail.  What is interesting about both are of course the people in the towns surrounding the main characters, and not the main characters themselves.  In particular the Rhodes Island town is full of surprisingly well-rounded secondary characters from the cousin’s wife who’s experimenting in a lesbian relationship, to the local fisherman and his sons, to the local restaurant owner who is intensely fabulous (yes, the gay kind of fabulous. There’s quite a bit of GLBT in this book, for those interested in that).  I was so interested in this town.  This was a town that actually demonstrated the problems innate in some people having too much money while others don’t have enough.  This was so much more interesting than Rosewater’s sojourn in Indiana.  But then!  Just when I was really getting into it and thinking this book might approach Slaughterhouse-Five level….bam! Back to Indiana.

Much more interesting than the heavy-handed money message was the much more subtle one on the impact of war.  Mr. Rosewater’s sanity issues go back to WWII.  I won’t tell you what happened, because the reveal is quite powerful.  Suffice to say, Vonnegut clearly understood the impact WWII had on an entire generation and clearly thought about the impact of war on humanity in general.  In this way, this book is quite like Slaughterhouse-Five.  Another interesting way that it’s similar is that Mr. Rosewater listens to a bird tweeting in the same manner (poo-tee-weet!)  I haven’t read enough Vonnegut to know, but I wonder if these two items show up in many of his works?  The birds, especially, are interesting.

Overall, if you’re a Vonnegut enthusiast, enjoy reading for setting and character studies, and don’t mind a message that’s a bit heavy-handed, you will enjoy this book.  Folks just looking for a feel of what makes Vonnegut held in such high esteem should stick to Slaughterhouse-Five though.

3.5 out of 5

Source: PaperBackSwap

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