Opening line: ‘Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.’
As it nears Johnny’s fourteenth birthday, Johnny is increasingly at odds with his community, especially his father. Gabriel Grimes’s fanaticism drives him to abuse his family in his pursuit of righteousness and perfection. Set in 1930s Harlem, Johnny does well in school and dreams of leaving Harlem to live in the big houses of Fifth Avenue. But Johnny doesn’t know the stories of his community and his family, how his parents and aunt all came to Harlem from the South and the lives they left behind and the sins they brought with them. Sin, redemption, faith — these all bind the stories together, even Johnny’s.
Writing a summary for this novel was really difficult. There are three parts to this novel: the first and last parts are Johnny’s story, and the second part tells the individual stories of Johnny’s father and aunt and of his mother. Reading this novel provides insight into the black community in the early twentieth century. I found it challenging at times, regarding zeal and faith, and also found it very heartbreaking. Racism is awful, full stop. I know I write that from the position of being a white woman. But being a woman means that I can relate, a little bit: the scene where Gabriel walks down the street to get medicine for his wife, and he’s afraid because he’s aware that he’s the only black man out and there are white men all standing at the doors of the bars, and the sense of plain wrongness and frustration at feeling afraid in that situation — as a woman, I too have felt that when walking down a street at night, alone, in a city, being hyper-aware of my surroundings. Not the same. But similar. This is a novel I would recommend people to read if they’ve never really thought about race relations in the U.S., or if it’s been awhile, or just to anyone.