A novel, or memoir, at its best, will give you a window in to the life of someone you might never meet in real life. This memoir, if you can call it a memoir when half of it is about the author’s mother, succeeds admirably. Where else would I have learned what it was like to be a poor Jew living in the south in the 1930s? Or what it was like to be part of a giant mixed-race family in New York in the 50s and 60s? Okay, maybe that last part is a lot more common, but it was still fascinating.
This book is definitely about race and class as much as anything. The author’s mother was Jewish at a time when that really meant something, where people would exclude you for it, though maybe I’m being naive and in some places they still do care deeply about ostracizing anyone who isn’t the right flavor of Christian. It also feels, in some ways, like a love letter to New York and all the opportunities that were there even for people who were black and desperately poor (if you had someone like his mother who was intent on partaking of them.)
I also liked that this book wasn’t as emotional as I feared. There were a couple of sections where I cried, but it wasn’t an “uplifting” book where people are tortured extensively and suffer for decades and we’re supposed to feel that it’s a testament to the human spirit or some such backflap dreck. It’s just a well-written book about some people with different and rather interesting lives.