In “Another Brooklyn,” National Book Award-winning novelist Jacqueline Woodson tells the story of an African-American woman whose trip back to her father’s funeral revives memories of her unsettled Brooklyn childhood. Woodson appears Sept. 21 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
It is a measure of the power in Jacqueline Woodson’s prose that she can convey all the confused pain of adolescence in a mere 170 pages. “Another Brooklyn” (Amistad, 192 pp., $22.99) is a book so careful and slender that its paragraphs read like stanzas of poetry. But its story reverberates like a gong.
Told in fragments of memory, like pieces from a mosaic, Woodson, whose book is one of 10 nominees for this year’s National Book Award in fiction, presents the story of August, a young girl wrenched from the Tennessee countryside and plunked into hot, noisy Brooklyn circa 1973, after the mysterious passing of her mother, whose presence haunts every page.
As her tale opens, August is an Ivy League-educated anthropologist returning home for her father’s funeral. But most of the book comes directly through the eyes of the child she was. Or, more precisely, memories from that childhood.
The author of “Another Brooklyn” will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 21, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
“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,” August begins. “But this didn’t happen. I know now that what is tragic isn’t the moment. It is the memory.”
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The locus of August’s ache, tangible as a stone in her throat, is her trio of friends from those years, who shared “the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying, Here. Help me carry this.”
Seeing one from the old group sitting across from her on a New York subway sends August back to the story of their tentative early alliance, coltish clique and later betrayals, her pushed-down memories bursting into consciousness through visual cues — the sight of a window painted shut, a woman’s wig askew.
Each of the group steps forward: Sylvia, a daughter of upright middle-class strivers; Angela, whose home life leaves her hands balled into fists; Gigi, emanating a magnetism that seems to promise greatness; and August, searching for a way to fit in and to understand the reasons behind her mother’s death.
“Another Brooklyn” is no African-American “Big Chill.” Poetry, rather than character development or realism, drives Woodson’s narrative. Yet the social upheaval of those years comes through sharp as the smells of garbage off a city street: the armless Vietnam veteran who walks the neighborhood in uniform, using teeth and tongue to shoot dope into his armpit, while “white people we didn’t know” fill trucks with their belongings and take a long look before fleeing.
“A pale woman with dark hair covered her face with her hands as she climbed into the passenger side, her shoulders trembling,” August observes. Sometimes a child would wave at the girls as the cars pulled away.
Woodson, a winner of nearly every honor available to writers of youth literature, including a Caldecott, Newbury and National Book Award for “Brown Girl Dreaming,” here presents her first work for adults in 20 years. Like Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” the unflinching coming-of-age tale anchoring “Another Brooklyn” will resonate with teenagers, too.
Some may be tempted to wonder how much of Woodson’s story is biographical. Her answer: little and all.
“My work is not always physically autobiographical,” the South Carolina-raised author said in a recent interview. “But it is always emotionally autobiographical. Every feeling my characters have had is a feeling I have had.”