Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
illustrations by R. Gregory Christie
Candlewick Press, 2011
review by Tessa
No Crystal Stair
Lewis Michaux, headstrong, driven man who wanted to make sure African-Americans knew the history of their people
Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, Lewis’ brother, a famous preacher
Mary Michaux, wife of Lightfoot, disapproving of Lewis
The FBI, wants to keep tabs on this bookseller in Harlem
Malcolm X, a friend of Lewis
The Watch that Ends the Night
The Captain, the Businessman, the Refugee, the Shipbuilder, the Iceberg, the Dragon Hunter, the Immigrant, the Navigator, the Gambler ,the Telegraphist, the Socialite, the Lookout, The Stoker, the Tailor the Tailor’s Son, the Junior Officer, the Violinist, the Baker, the Ship Rat, the Undertaker, the Postman, the Cook…
The most world-changing bookstore you never knew about, told by the people who were there. The most well-known disaster at sea, told by the people who were there.
I chose to review these two books together because they take a similar tactic in dealing with their particular historical investigations. No Crystal Stair calls itself a “documentary novel”, and so I’d call The Watch That Ends the Night a “documentary novel in poems”. Neither are billed as non-fiction, but both explore real historical figures and events. And neither are straight novel or straight poetry, but rather novelistic in scope and varied in voice and structure.
One of the fun and frustrating things about history is that there’s always another way to look at something. Even if you were there, a witness to an event, it would often be difficult for you to authoritatively say what happened. Nelson and Wolf exploit and expand on this aspect of history by breaking their narratives up into voices.
Nelson’s are very much in the talking-head style of a documentary, except written down in paragraphs on the page: “All those black books! I’ve never seen anything like it. The Howard University bookstore had some black books but mainly textbooks. When I walked into Lewis Michaux’s bookstore and saw all these histories, biographies and autobiographies, fliers and posters, it was mind-blowing.” (96).
Wolf’s voices speak in poems. Some are letters and telegrams. Some are free-verse and could just as well be prose. Some are free verse and let the poetry work for them, playing with imagery, slipping into concrete poetry, and even using lack of capitalization and punctuation to underline the lost voice of a toddler:
“the barber shop is a razor.
he wants to shave at papa’s mustache.
so i cry.
too many things are gone.
papa is a mustache.
and papa is pockets.
with biscuits. with bullets.
and a pistol. bang. bang.” (180).
Some (the iceberg) have actual rhyme schemes: “James Dobbins (last to die), not jumping clear, / while he himself Hail Marys and huzzahs, / is crushed by timbers as the people cheer.” (14).
What was the book’s intention and was it achieved?
Each author’s use of the documentary style lets the reader into history without letting history fade into the background. Unlike a historical novel, where a character just happens to be at the right historical place in the right historical time, whether by working for a famous historical figure or being the right age/sex to get drafted into war, in these books the characters are there because they already had a part to play, and that is being documented. The narrative is helped by the leeway that fictional interpretation can give.
This is most apparent in The Watch that Ends the Night and less so in No Crystal Stair. Any filigree of yearning, ambition, light romance, or life that Wolf gives to his characters serves to make them mourned should they not survive the night. The book would be propelled by a sense of doom whatever Wolf did, but he plays it up in his poems, too, doling out foreshadowing judiciously like a stoker would manage the coals in the furnaces of the ship. Wolf’s not playing around with any of the facts of what happened, he’s using his poetic license to play with our emotions. And in doing so, he’s making the facts stick.
No Crystal Stair is similarly researched and it includes historical asides, photographs, and news clippings. Better that it does, because it’s telling a story that should be more widely known, but isn’t. Earlier this year, the New York Daily News published an article about East Harlem getting its first bookstore. It failed to mention Harlem’s original bookstore (located in the Mount Morris Historical District, as far as I can tell from Wikipedia), which was built and run by Lewis Michaux, despite much struggle on his part.
This was the National Memorial African Bookstore on West 125th Street. It was an institution dedicated to informing black people about their history and the works of their forebears and peers. Malcolm X frequented it and spoke in front of it. And it was eventually forced out of its home by developers. The story follows Michaux from his childhood, where he was outshone by his famous brother, a preacher, through his first idea of having a bookstore, through the long years of getting the project off the ground, to its success (leading to a thick FBI file on his activities which was forced to conclude that he was no threat to national security).
Although Michaux and his family are sometimes not easy to like, he didn’t let anyone give him any guff and it’s plain to see that the man did admirable work and was an admirable person. And boy, did he know how to speak in a memorable soundbite: “Until the neglected and the rejected are accepted and respected, theres gonna be no damn peace… nowhere! Only a tree will stand still while it’s being chopped down.” (127).
Lewis Michaux was the great uncle of the author, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, who says that she “visited the store only once, when I was fourteen and, regretfully, didn’t realize the store’s significance until years after it had closed and my uncle had passed away” (166). While Wolf’s research on the Titanic proved challenging because there was too much written on it too soon, allowing for a wealth of rumor, research on No Crystal Stair had the opposite challenge for Nelson, with “nonexistent and conflicting information complicat[ing] the project” (166). It’s easy to see why Nelson turned to the format that makes up No Crystal Stair, leaving room in the imagination for what could not be verified in research.
However, the research she did do became marred, in my reading, when I found that one of the most affecting personal stories of a bookstore customer was revealed in the endnotes to be a full fabrication. There was so much to be impressed by with the story of the bookstore that I found myself wishing that it had been left to stand on its own. The extra story ended up feeling like too much manipulation, a failsafe in case the story couldn’t speak for itself.
Despite that small letdown, No Crystal Stair is a work that should be read and enjoyed by people who have an interest in the history of New York, bookstores, black power, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps stories, or any student that wants to have an especially interesting Black History Month research project. And The Watch That Ends the Night is a great suggestion to fans of the film Titanic, fans of stories in poems, or morbid-minded people who want to get a little weepy. After these two reading experiences, I hope more authors explore the documentary novel as a form.
Laura Amy Schlitz, illus. Robert Byrd
A Newbery Medal winner from 2008, this book uses poems to illuminate the world of medieval England, using 22 distinct voices.
Helen Frost is the MASTER of the novel in poetic voice. This particular book is set during World War I in the American heartland, and has four main characters who do the speaking. Its poems are deceptively straightforward, but trust me, don’t skip the explanation of their structure at the end.
So, this is a history of things that have never happened. But it sounds just like what oral histories sound like – a little dry, but exciting because it really happened (please read some Studs Terkel if you don’t know what I’m talking about)! Only this never happened. But there are zombies!
Disclosures & Digressions