Tuesday, May 14, 2013
No Crystal Stair
No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller
by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Minneapolis, MN : Carolrhoda Lab, 2012.
Lewis Michaux grew up in Newport News, Virginia, the son of a black man who worked hard to own his own business and a mother who birthed sixteen children - twelve living - and struggled with depression. He got in some trouble as a youngster, but was inspired to start a bookstore in Harlem in the 1930s that sold books by and about black people and became a cultural center known for visitors such as Malcolm X and others.
The subtitle bills this book as "a documentary novel of the life and work of Lewis Michaux." The story is told in snippets, sections of it told by various people - Lewis, his parents, his brothers, his wife, bookstore visitors both historical and imaginary - and includes photographs of historic people and quotes from FBI files. It's a unique format for a compelling story. Being separated into small segments like it is, and covering several years, did mean that I got only glimpses of who the characters/people were like, and I sometimes wasn't clear on when things were happening.
I hadn't heard of Michaux before, but I loved his drive to provide books and education to his people. He seems like a really dynamic guy, and reading this, I was kind of sad that he was long gone before I was borne. The title comes from the Langston Hughes poem that begins, "Well, son, I'll tell you: / Life for me ain't been no crystal stair. / It's had tacks in it, / And splinters, / And boards torn up, / And places with no carpet on the floor -- / Bare." This certainly seems to suit Michaux's life, as he went from barely making ends meet to becoming one of the truly respected men in his neighborhood. I really loved the quoted poetry and mentions of the books in his inventory; it added a lot to the story and made me want to read more. The bibliography at the back and notes on the text gave me some great sources to start with, and was really impressive for a fictional book.
This book was the winner of School Library Journal's Battle of the Kids' Books, and while I'm still a little sad that it beat Code Name Verity, which was one of my favorite reads last year, I am glad that this prompted me to read it.