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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Strivers Row by Kevin Baker

Genre: Historical Fiction

Setting: Harlem, 1943

First Sentence: Harlem waits.

In this novel, Kevin Baker completes his City of Fire trilogy.  In this series Bakers tells the history of New York City from the Civil War Era, through the turn of the twentieth century, to the 1940's.  In each novel, Baker portrays what day to day life was like for the poor, the immigrants, the petty criminals, the drug users, and the corrupt politicians.

During the roaring twenties, the Harlem Renaissance made Harlem the center of black culture.  During the Depression, underneath the facade of gentility and upward mobility, the reality of segregation and discrimination exposed the reality of life in Harlem.  During the Second World War the residents of Harlem learned of the plight of the Jews in Europe and wondered if they might suffer a similar fate.

 In Strivers Row, we follow the experiences of two young black men, living in Harlem during the War, whose lives become intertwined due to a series of chance encounters.  Their parallel experiences serve to compare and contrast the lives of these two men.

Malcolm Little is a young hustler.  He arrives as a wide eyed dreamer, and soon becomes enamored with the excitement of the City.  Soon he is involved in hustling, petty crime, running numbers, and dealing drugs.  Along the way, Malcolm learns about Elijah Mohammed and the Nation of Islam.  These experiences serve as an education which will form the basis of the transformation of Malcolm Little to Malcolm X.

Contrasted with Malcolm is Jonah Dove.  Jonah is a young minister who is unsure of himself and his abilities.  Due to his biracial heritage, Jonah is able to "pass".  In fact, he has taken to leaving Harlem and experiencing what life is like for white men.  It is these journeys which lead Jonah to question his calling as a minister and a leader of the black community.

In the end, I think each character learns that life is not just what happens to you, but what you make it to be.

I liked this novel.  Taken as a whole, the three novels of the trilogy paint an interesting picture of life in New York City in the last 150 years.


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