(Reviewed by Hagen Baye FEB 26, 2007)
The place is Harlem. The time is the early 1940’s. World War II is raging in Europe and in the Pacific. That’s the setting for Kevin Baker’s superb historical novel Strivers Row. Harlem is a seething tinder box of rage, ready to explode at the slightest provocation; word is filtering back on the mistreatment of Black GIs, here at home (particularly at military bases in the South) and overseas. The injustice of it all is approaching the boiling point. Why risk your life fighting for the freedom of strangers, when the very country sending you into the battlefield is denying you those very same freedoms here at home?
Into that mix Baker’s story centers on two principal characters, one a real historic person, the other a creation of Baker’s imagination.
Jonah Dove, the Rev. Jonah Dove, is the fictional character. He has inherited the reins of The Church of the New Jerusalem, a church founded by his father, the Rev. Milton Dove, now in ill health in his 90’s. New Jerusalem is said to be one of the “big three” churches of Harlem, the other two being the real Abyssinian Baptist Church, headed then by Jonah’s contemporary, the charismatic Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., himself the heir of his father’s work, and St. Philip’s Episcopal Church. New Jerusalem is the place of worship for the working class of Harlem, the others minister to those whom are better off.
The historic character in the book is none other than Malcolm Little. In his late teens during the time of the events of this novel, Malcolm Little would subsequently be converted to the Muslim faith (through Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam) and change his name to Malcolm X. This all-important historic character makes Baker’s work that much more fascinating.
Jonah and Malcolm have a number of things in common, with yet distinctive dissimilarities. For one thing, both are of mixed race. Malcolm’s maternal grandfather was a white man, whom his mother hated and to whom Malcolm referred to as a “rapist.” Malcolm had a reddish hue to his skin and hair, but his Negroid features were otherwise unmistakable. On the other hand, although Jonah’s father was dark-skinned, Jonah himself—as well as his sister and only sibling, Sophia—were so light-skinned that he easily “passed” for white. His father's mother was white and the Dove family venerated her memory. During race riots of the Civil War, she gave her life protecting his father from a racist mob.
Nevertheless, Jonah was conflicted by his mixed race. Essentially, he questions why he should live as a Black man with its second-class citizenship (and worse) when he can pass for white and live without the daily nonsense and injustices that Blacks have to endure. In fact, his sister left the family, maintaining contact only with Jonah, and established herself as a white woman with the name of Miranda Dolan, curiously principally attracted to Black men. She railed:“We’re white and black. Our Daddy’s momma was white, so why shouldn’t we be? Why shouldn’t we be whatever the hell we want to be?”
Jonah was so taken by this that he was mightily tempted to leave his wife (a dark skin woman his father urged him to marry as a means of healing—irony of ironies—a dark skin v. light skin rift among New Jerusalem’s parishioners), his father and his ministry. Jonah was also floundering in the latter, struggling to connect as a minister/preacher with his flock, struggling indeed to be a worthy successor to his father. Further, he had doubts about his faith, compounded by his father’s admission of his own non-belief in God and by his realization of the “business” aspect of the ministry. Finally, his inability to be of any real assistance to his flock in terms of countering the injustices that curtailed their civil rights further frustrated him—and made that escape hatch to the white world that much more enticing.
Malcolm was not without his own torments. Principally, he was rootless, having lost his father at the hands of racist murderers and his mother to the insanity that resulted from her husband’s killing. Then, he was separated from his siblings by social workers. He found himself adrift in Harlem. Excited, indeed, about being a young man with no responsibilities but to himself in the capital of Black America with the flashiness of the nightlife and its world-class entertainers. He got caught up in the excitement of it all and taken in by the hustlers who thrived on the street life, becoming a numbers runner, drug dealer, drug abuser, pimp, etc…. But he was also tormented by nightmares about his past and what had happened to his parents and family.
While The Autobiography of Malcolm X (and Baker’s account of Malcolm tracks it and other biographies of Malcolm) does not allude to Malcolm’s encountering anything about the Nation of Islam during his Harlem days, Baker exercises some poetic license and accelerates when this religious force began to make inroads upon Malcolm. Malcolm is also tormented by the injustices visited upon him and his, due merely to the accident of race. He was the third top student in his high school class and while all of the white students were urged to aim for the top and aspire to be attorneys, doctors, and the like, Malcolm was lectured to be realistic and to do his best to learn a handy trade.
Malcolm and Jonah do cross paths at four different points in the book: On a train that Malcolm was working selling sandwiches, and where Malcolm saves Jonah and his wife from the taunts and physical threats by drunken white soldiers; at the club where Sophia/Miranda sings (Malcolm was smitten with her and was one of her Black lovers); on the street, while Malcolm is escorting a John to a Harlem whorehouse (Jonah chased after him, angry at what Malcolm was doing); and at the climatic end of the book, during the inevitable riot that results from the smoldering discontent that had Harlemites on edge.
Being a historic novel, in addition to Malcolm Little/X, cameo appearances of sorts are made by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Jonah’s more sophisticated contemporary (whose lack of belief also rattled Jonah), Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, during the riot at the end, as well as several of the power brokering politicians of the day who tried to co-opt the Black ministers for the support of Harlemites over whom they had great influence, and the ultra-reclusive and extraordinarily eccentric Collyer brothers, white men who lived in Harlem (and from whose house an incredible 136 tons of newspapers was removed when they were found dead, hoarded by one brother so that his blind brother can catch up on the news when his sight was somehow some day returned). And then there are the Harlem characters, introduced to the world by The Autobiography of Malcolm X, such as West Indian Archie (who Baker casts as Sohia/Miranda’s principal boyfriend), Sammy the Pimp and Black NYPD detective Joe Baker.
Finally, through a Jewish Harlem merchant, Jakey Mendelssohn and his nephew Lazar (silenced by his exposure to the Holocaust), Baker makes parallels between the experience of the Jews (“their other obsession”) and that of American Blacks, made poignant by the following excerpt from a defining sermon by Jonah:
“…[S]ome people over in Germany thought they could just expunge a great and ancient people from human history. But they will not succeed, for we will stop them. There are some people—not over in Germany, but right here in the United States of America—who would like to use the war to do the same thing to all of us. But they will not succeed, for we will stop them, too. Though it may seem impossible—though it may seem incredible—we have already labored in this country for over three hundred years, through slavery and Jim Crow, and we are not going anywhere….”
Baker’s writing is brilliant, even lyrical at times, especially when he is describing the Harlem night and street life. His development of the characters of Jonah and Malcolm—interspersing the earlier formative events of their lives—is superbly done. And he brings to life the world of some 60 years ago to the present day reader. This is a truly fascinating book about a fascinating time and place—and persons.
Afterthought: Anyone who was alive and aware of Malcolm X at the time he was assassinated on February 21, 1965, should recall that he was generally feared and despised. Among other reasons, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published posthumously several years later, is an amazing book for the turnaround in public sentiment and the acceptance it brought about of this controversial man. For example, no one would have imagined that the USPS would ever publish a stamp with Malcolm X’s image; it would have been heresy, perhaps even considered treasonable, to suggest such a thing during Malcolm’s lifetime.
- Amazon readers rating: from 7 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Strivers Row at MostlyFiction.com(back to top)
(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran NOV 12, 2002)The editor here at MostlyFiction.com asked me to review Kevin Baker's new novel Paradise Alley, because, as she put it, I'm our resident history buff. I think this is a polite way of saying "history geek," but I won't quibble. She can call me "Tubby McWeaselface" for all I care, as long as she keeps sending me books as meaty, thrilling, and epic as this one.
Paradise Alley chronicles the draft riots that shook New York City during the summer of 1863, at the height of the Civil War. It is a huge work, over 650 pages long, although one shouldn't shy away merely because of its bulk. Baker, whose previous works include the critically acclaimed Dreamland, serves up a no-holds-barred dissection of the three-day riot. It is a testament to his skill as a historical researcher and as a novelist that he can maintain the reader's interest for the whole darn story. Baker chooses to tell the story through many points of view, a wise move considering the complexity of the mob violence. The central characters are Billy and Ruth Dove, an interracial couple, hoping to avoid both the riots and Ruth's former lover, "Dangerous" Johnny Dolan. Johnny, one of the most evil characters I have ever encountered, had "saved" Ruth from the potato famine in Ireland, (also rendered in horrific detail) only to bring her to New York as some sort of wife/punching bag. We also get the story of Johnny's sister Deirdre and her soldier husband, Tom, along with the neighborhood prostitute Maddy Boyle. Baker wisely does not attempt to make each character a narrator a la Matthew Kneale's English Passengers, but instead weaves the meticulously researched stories into a far-reaching panorama. Baker cleverly throws a reporter, Herbert Willis Robinson, into the fray, which allows us to see all aspects of the riot. Through Robinson's jaded eye, Baker is able to include many anecdotes that wouldn't make sense in a more traditional narrative.
Having taught history for ten years, I can appreciate the burden Baker undertook in attempting to tell this multifaceted story. It is easy to look at the Civil War as a "good v. evil" campaign. The victorious and righteous Yankees used all its power to smite the slave-holding Confederacy and restored honor and glory to the Union. Reading Paradise Alley reminds us of how very wrong this approach is. Although Baker's sympathies lie with the North, he spares no mercy in showing most of the New Yorkers, and particularly the Irish, to be virulent and violent racists. As a runaway slave, Billy Dove pushes himself to freedom with the mantra "free or not free." While in New York, he finds himself and other black people to be "free and not free." Baker is a master at creating all kinds of tension, domestic, municipal, national, ethnic, political, racial, class, and I'm sure a lot of other types for which I have no label. Baker never allows his audience to become inured to the violence, never condescending into the banality of brutality, forcing us to acknowledge the rioters, the way they look, think, and even smell. The very epic nature of the book forces the reader to empathize with the main characters, although just as he refuses to paint the riot in terms of good and evil, likewise, he never lets any of the characters assume too saintly a mantle.
Baker must have spent years researching this novel and he presents his findings so entertainingly that even the most casual reader will come away having learned something. He gives us rich insight into, among other things, the horrible conditions caused by the Irish potato famine, the life of a skilled slave craftsman, and the just plain dirty conditions of New York City. Here, he has a character introduce the regulars in a bar. Colorful would be an understatement. "This here's One-Armed Charlie, an' Kate Flannery, and Slobbery Jim and Patsy the Barber. An' that's Sadie the Goat, and Jack Rat, who makes his money biting the heads off a rats down at Kit Burns's an' George Leese, also known as Snatchem, who used to be with the Slaughterhouse Gang, but now works the fights as a bloodsucker." By the way, according to the glossary provided by Baker, a bloodsucker is someone who "sucks fighters' fists dry of blood during the bare-knuckle boxing matches of the day." I told you that you'd learn something, didn't I?
It's easy to forget that professional municipal fire departments are a product of the post-Civil War world and Baker uses them as pivotal players in the riot. During the Civil War, New York was protected by rival fire companies, "owned" by various political factions, companies such as the Black Joke, the Old Honey Bee, the Iron Horse, the Man Killer, the Shad Bellies, the Bean Soup, and the Dashing Half Hundred. These companies raced to the scene of the fire because access to the hydrant and thus honor and political patronage belonged to the victor. Who could imagine such a scene, especially after the September 11 tragedy?Paradise Alley is long and the more squeamish readers (I'm one of them) will find it tough going in spots. But don't let the length scare you off. It's a compelling and important story with a vivid narrative style that's easy to follow. So curl up next to a roaring fire and dig into Paradise Alley. Even if you're not a history geek, you'll enjoy this one or my name's not Tubby McWeaselface.
- Amazon readers rating: from 40 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Paradise Alley at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Sometimes You See It Coming (1993)
New York: City of Fire Trilogy
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- The official Kevin Baker Web site
- Reading Group Guide for Dreamland
- The Richmond Review on Dreamland
- The Copacetic Comics Company review of Dreamland
- Reading Group Guide for Paradise Alley
- The New York Times review of Paradise Alley
- Christian Science Monitor review of Paradise Alley
- January Magazine review of Paradise Alley
- Reading Guide for Strivers Row
- Some current photos of Strivers Row and Wikipedia entry
- BookReporter.com review of Strivers Row
- The New York Times review of Strivers Row
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