Tuesday, June 23, 2020

42. A Hero Ain't Nothing but a Sandwich by Alice Childress

I found a nice paperback copy of this book on a bookshelf on the sidewalk in my neighbourhood. It was full of mostly french books, some of which had the stamp of the library of my local elementary school.  I also found a Pokemon book for my daughter, which she had specifically asked me for.  So a nice little find in a time when the free closet on St-Viateur is still locked!  

This book plays a big role in the memories of my childhood.  I grew up in California in the '70s and we used to get these book catalogues.  As you got older they had different names and each had a selection of books you could buy.  I don't remember if they were subsidized or who actually paid.  I remember getting a few.  The teacher would receive a big book and hand them out.  Your books would be wrapped together in a rubber band with the receipt inside.  I remember it being quite exciting and it seemed to me at the time, that every kid got one.  I hope that was the case, as there several kids from less well-off families in my class.  

A Hero Ain't Nothing but a Sandwich was part of the heavier and so intriguing books that were offered to the older kids.  I remember The Chocolate War and The Outsiders.  I moved to Canada before puberty so never actually got the opportunity to order them and I only read a few, but the titles and cover images are still very evocative to me of the mystery of teenagers struggling with social issues in a very 70s way.

Actually, it was very timely to read this book.  At first, I was a bit put off as it is written in text in the language a 70s ghetto teenage boy would use with his peers.  It is written well, though, and each chapter is a different character, in their unique voice.  It moves very quickly.  The core story is of 13-year old Benjie who is on the road to becoming a junkie.  We start out with him, but then meet his stepdad, his teachers, his grandmother, his mom and others, each in their own voice.  It's short and tight and super clearly and strongly lays out the reality of the generational trauma the black community in America has suffered.  I knew this, but the recent chorus of seemingly educated white voices on social media makes me wonder what happened to our education and collective understanding of history.  This is the kids born 5 years before me, so early Gen-Xers or late, boomers who was reading books like this.  It just hammers home how little we have done about racism when you see how a mainstream book like this is basically laying out all the problems and it is from almost 50 years ago!

Another interesting comparison is the story of Bubbles and that young kid whose name I forgot who goes on to become a junkie and basically the next Bubbles.  A Hero Ain't Nothing but a Sandwich has a climax of hope, but a denouement that leaves the outcome anxiously undecided (funny that the previous book I read, Marianne Dreams, also ended with an ambiguous will-he won't he ending, though it seemed more optimistic).  I guess it is a story told all too many times in the ghetto.

One criticism I will make is that I didn't get a good understanding of Benjie's relationship to heroin.  There was very little that explained how the way the drug made him feel would make him want to keep doing it. It was elided and I didn't leave understanding how a 13-year old boy would become hooked.

Still, a great book, really well-written, tight and moving.  It's not preachy at all, but you will be reminded of urban black history and that the struggle is fucking real.  Black Lives Matter.

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