Thursday, July 12, 2012

Stories from Readers

It's good to get out. Last night I went to the home of a neighbor for a meeting of her book group. Her group--ten to twelve women--had read my book, Grand River and Joy. The novel has been out three years this month, and I am grateful and also thrilled that people are still reading and discussing it. A few weeks ago, my sister's book group in New Jersey discussed it. This morning, first thing, I had an email from a woman in Israel (an old friend of my husband's family) who read my book and plans to discuss it with her book group near the end of the month.
     The women at the group last night were excellent readers and thinkers, and the questions and comments were insightful and thought-provoking. Because they just read the book, they remembered details I had almost forgotten (Curtis's response to white women playing with their hair; the grandmother's disapproval in the bicycle giveaway; the way Curtis and Harry step on each others' toes, trying to give each other parenting advice).
     Anyway . . . a couple stories that these women told from real life stayed with me and also fit well with the topic of this blog, from which I have so often strayed.
     1. One woman is a children's librarian in a suburban library where the community is relatively affluent and mostly white. She says that they track circulation statistics, and books with ethnically diverse characters or with black characters portrayed on the cover tend to circulate very little. I asked whether circulation statistics influence purchasing decisions, and she said that the library staff try not to give in too much--she believes that in a homogenous community like that, it's particularly important for children to be exposed in some way to people who don't look exactly like they do)--but budgets are limited, and so the collection tends to track with popularity. Sigh.

     2. Another woman--the host for the evening--said she had recently gone to a spelling bee at the neighborhood elementary school. This is the school my daughter went to, and it is well-integrated in the racial/ethnic sense. It is the school that offered the gospel choir I referred to a couple posts back. At any rate, the spelling bee was for all grades, and there were about 100 or more children there, all very excited and eager to participate. The worrisome thing, she said, was that of all these children, only perhaps three or four were black. Why is this? she wondered. Although I can never again think of a spelling bee without thinking of Myla Goldberg's Bee Season (what a little jewel of a book), I wondered too.

     3. Then there were the two women--one who grew up in a Chicago neighborhood called "Back of the Yards" (where the stockyards used to be when Chicago was "Hog Butcher to the World") and the other who grew up in an Illinois town called Bensenville--who had never met a black person or a Jew until they went to college. As I often explain when discussing my book, pretty much the ONLY people I knew growing up were blacks and Jews. And so we all reflected on how we're shaped by the place where we grow up. Although several women in the group last night grew up in various parts of Chicago and had families who moved as part of "White Flight," the woman from Back of the Yards said that her neighborhood--which was very poor--never became integrated. Books, stories, life, books, stories, life. So many stories. So much life. So many books.


Anonymous said...

Commenting on your blog according to number:
1. I live in a predominately Mormon suburb of Phoenix. Before moving here from diverse LA, I asked the real estate agent to select a diverse area in Phoenix. There is a 1% Jewish population in Maricopa County. Consequently, it almost didn't matter where we relocated. But, we didn't know these stats when we moved here. The first few years I complained to local merchants for not selling Passover food, Jewish New Year's cards and the like. Having lived here 17 years, I understand that merchants aren't going to take up valuable shelf space with items that don't sell. We are also the only home subscribers in this city to subscribe to the New York Times. But that's another story. With libraries faced with severe budget cuts, I understand the necessity to buy books that circulate. Sad. True.
2. Spelling Bees probably attract students whose care givers spend time with them. Minorities especially are suffering financially. They may not have the time or inclination to to listen to their children spell. That's a simple answer to a much more complex problem.
3. I can speak personally to this issue having been raised in Detroit where blacks and Jews co-mingled because we have much in common. The discrimination issue is similar although as whites, we pass until those who discriminate know our religion.I deal with the latter daily. In Detroit, blacks
often worked for Jews and many times became part of the family. Before the last brick was in place, religious black leaders arranged to buy synagogues. The most prestigious Jewish funeral chapel first located in Detroit has been owned by blacks for years. It is common to see black diners at Jewish delis in Detroit because of their exposure to Jewish food, although the opposite is not true. These situations are not only the result of "White Flight, but also the result of co-mingling of blacks and Jews Other ethnics lived in different parts of the city. Consequently, I too grew up knowing mainly blacks and Jews until I attended Wayne State University.
The United States likes to think of itself as diverse, but these days we are united by name only. And we are all missing out on learning about each other through books and human involvement.
All that said, we elected a black president in 2008. Hopefully that election will continue to open the door for all American citizens to serve our country and share their heritage irrelevant of religion and race. And hopefully Martin Luther King's dream will become a reality.
These words are not lofty. These ideals are necessary for our survival as a country.

Susan Messer said...

Well said. Thanks so much for your thoughts. Complex issues all around.

Jim Poznak said...

It's sad that although President Barak Obama is bi-racial, our country is still no less racially polarized.

Susan Messer said...

Yeah. It's almost unbelievable really that he was elected.