It’s been a while since I’ve written here — almost a month! Usually, I aim to post at least once a week, but November was a busy month and a special project pulled a lot of my attention.
I wanted to tell you about The Street by Ann Petry. The other day I came across this striking new edition from Mariner Books when I was browsing for a gift at R.J. Julia in Madison, CT. I read The Street last year in ebook form but never wrote a blog post about it, quite possibly because it was an ebook. I find it harder to write about an ebook than a hardcopy of a book where I have all my stickies and post-it-notes to track my thoughts. It’s just not the same experience with an e-reader. I did talk about The Street on the Book Cougars Podcast (Episode 70 and Episode 71).
The Street by Ann Petry was published in 1946. It quickly sold over a million copies and catapulted Petry’s career. It also has the distinction of being the first novel by an African American woman to sell over a million copies.
The opening scene is one of my absolute favorites. It is a cold November day in Harlem as Lutie Johnson, the main character, is out looking for a new apartment for herself and her young son.
There was a cold November wind blowing through 116th Street. It rattled the tops of garbage cans, sucked window shades out through the top of opened windows and set them flapping back against the windows; and it drove most of the people off the street in the block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues except for a few hurried pedestrians who bent double in an effort to offer the least possible exposed surface to its violent assault.
It found every scrap of paper along the street—theater throwaways, announcements of dances and lodge meetings, the heavy waxed paper that loaves of bread had been wrapped in, the thinner waxed paper that had enclosed sandwiches, old envelopes, newspapers. Fingering its way along the curb, the wind set the bits of paper to dancing high in the air, so that a barrage of paper swirled into the faces of the people on the street. It even took time to rush into doorways and areaways and find chicken bones and pork-chop bones and pushed them along the curb.
It did everything it could to discourage the people walking along the street. It found all the dirt and dust and grime on the sidewalk and lifted it up so that the dirt got into their noses, making it difficult to breathe; the dust got into their eyes and blinded them; and the grit stung their skins. It wrapped newspaper around their feet entangling them until the people cursed deep in their throats, stamped their feet, kicked at the paper. The wind blew it back again and again until they were forced to stoop and dislodge the paper with their hands. And then the wind grabbed their hats, pried their scarves from around their necks, stuck its fingers inside their coat collars, blew their coats away from their bodies.
The wind lifted Lutie Johnson’s hair away from the back of her neck so that she felt suddenly naked and bald, for her hair had been resting softly and warmly against her skin. She shivered as the cold fingers of the wind touched the back of her neck, explored the sides of her head. It even blew her eyelashes away from her eyes so that her eyeballs were bathed in a rush of coldness and she had to blink in order to read the words on the sign swaying back and forth over her head.Opening paragraphs of The Street by Ann Petry
You want to keep reading, don’t you? I could see, feel, and smell this scene.
Lutie’s life has taken an unexpected turn. Her husband cheated on her and she’s left him. She’s a young African American woman living alone in Harlem trying to raise her son. Her story takes some twists and turns, but what kept me glued to the page was Petry’s vivid description of 1940s Harlem and the window she opens into African American lives there.
In the introduction to this new edition, Tayari Jones asks, “How can a novel’s social criticism be so unflinching and clear, yet its plot moves like a house on fire?” Race, gender, class, and even African American service in the U.S. Army are all targets for Petry’s pen. The arguments put forth regarding an African American man’s resistance to fighting for the Army against the Germans was scathing and I found myself nodding along. I’m curious to read some earlier reviews of this novel. It seems like a bold move for a novel that came out in 1946.
Re-reading those first paragraphs makes me want to re-read the whole novel right now! But I’m going to resist because I’ve just been down an Ann Petry internet rabbit hole and have her second novel in my sights.
Petry was born in 1908 in Old Saybrook, CT, which is just up the road from where I live. (Some scenes from The Street are set in Old Saybrook.) I am excited to learn that Petry’s novel, Country Place (1947) includes a summer storm based on her experience of the Hurricane of 1938. Regular readers of this blog might recall that I recently read Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 by R.A. Scotti, which I wrote about here.
I’m off to track down a copy of Country Place. I’ll be sure to report back on that novel, but in the meantime do yourself a favor and add The Street to your To Be Read List.
Disclaimer: The book links I’ve included in this post go to my Bookshop affiliate shop where I’ll get a small commission at no expense to you and 10% of your purchase is also donated to their independent bookstore partners. Bookshop is offering free shipping from today (Black Friday) through Cyber Monday (Nov 30th).