I had heard all the good things about this book, but I was hesitant to read it because I have an irrational mental block against both memoir and poetry. I know, I know. I’ve had some success lately with memoir on audio, though, so when I saw this was available on OverDrive, read by Woodson herself, and also very short, I figured it couldn’t hurt to give it a try.
It did not hurt. It was actually quite wonderful.
The audiobook definitely helped, as Woodson’s poetry is free verse and so the book sounds like a regular memoir most of the time. But the audio also makes the poetry part so much better because you can hear where Woodson breaks her lines and where she wants the emphasis and I’m looking at the print version right now and it’s just not the same. There are a few poems where the spacing and italics and the white space in the print version have their own sort of gorgeousness to them, but overall I am very glad I chose to listen to this.
Oh, what’s the book about, you ask? Right. Well, it’s a memoir, of course, of Woodson’s childhood growing up briefly in Ohio and then primarily in South Carolina and Brooklyn in the height of the civil rights era.
“I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital
a country caught
between Black and White.”
Those are the first lines of the first poem in the book, and they set the stage for what’s to come. Woodson and her siblings grow up with a Southern mother and Northern father and feel the strain of that geographical divide no matter where they’re living. In South Carolina they live with their mother’s family in their mother’s home, but even their mother is wary of their lives there. As a Northern transplant to a very Southern part of Florida, I was startled to hear these words coming out of my car speakers:
“Never ma’am—just yes, with eyes
meeting eyes enough to show respect.
Don’t ever ma’am anyone!
The word too painful
a memory for my mother
southern subservient days . . .”
That first part is absolute crazy talk in my neck of the woods, where a forgotten “ma’am” gets even grown adults in trouble. “Ma’am” and “sir” have become so ingrained in my vocabulary that it’s hard to imagine anyone purposely not saying them, but of course it makes perfect sense in the context of the time.
And that’s how most of the poems go — they’re mostly short, some very short, reflections on mostly normal events like moving and going to school and making and keeping friends, but they’re all imbued with history, whether the history of Jacqueline Woodson or her family or the South or the whole country.
It’s a beautiful book and if you are on the fence about it for any reason, please do give it a try, especially in audio. You probably won’t regret it.
Recommendation: For everyone, really.