Leaving Cecil Street

Leaving Cecil Street

4.4 15
by Diane McKinney-Whetstone

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As she did in her previous novels Tumbling and Blues Dancing, Diane McKinney-Whetstone once again renders time and place, character and emotional intensities. It is 1969 and Cecil Street is "feeling some kind of way," so the residents decide to have two block parties this year. These energetic, sensual street celebrations serve as backdrop to the stories of the people… See more details below


As she did in her previous novels Tumbling and Blues Dancing, Diane McKinney-Whetstone once again renders time and place, character and emotional intensities. It is 1969 and Cecil Street is "feeling some kind of way," so the residents decide to have two block parties this year. These energetic, sensual street celebrations serve as backdrop to the stories of the people on the block. Joe, a long-ago sax player, has turned his eye across the street to a newly arrived young southern beauty even as he is suddenly haunted by memories of this horn-playing nights and his affection for a shy, soft hooker from years ago. Joe's wife, Louise, a licensed practical nurse, is losing her teeth to gum disease and her joy to sensing that Joe's attention has wandered. Their teenage daughter, Shay, is consumed with helping her best friend and next-door neighbor Neet, who has gotten pregnant by a Corner Boy. Neet's mother, Alberta, is shunned by the block because of her immersion in a religion that has no name.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
It's been said that Diane McKinney-Whetstone writes "like Toni Morrison." That's not true. McKinney-Whetstone writes like herself. She creates a unique, believable black middle-class world where there are no villains -- just individuals trying their very best to get through life while inflicting minimum pain on each other, or themselves. — Carolyn See
Publishers Weekly
Wistful, melodious, contemplative, McKinney-Whetstone's prose feels inspired by the tenor sax central to this story. It's the summer of 1969 on Cecil Street in West Philadelphia, and "even though the block had long ago made the transition from white to colored to Negro to Black is Beautiful, the city still provided street cleaning twice a week in the summer when the children took to the outside and there was the familiar smack, smack of the double-Dutch rope." Neet and Shay, 17-year-old neighbors, are as close as that double rope, and when Neet's illegal abortion goes terribly wrong, Shay is distraught-especially since the procedure had been her idea. Shay's father, Joe, offers tender, paternal wisdom: "Be sad 'cause your best friend is going through a trauma right now, that's a clean, honest sadness. Don't dirty it up with a bunch of guilt that you choosing to feel." Dealing with his own sadness and guilt is harder. Joe loves his wife, Louise, but giving up the sax soon after they married turned out to be a bigger sacrifice than he realized, and getting straight with himself is a moral, sexual, musical adventure. McKinney-Whetstone's fourth novel (after 1999's Blues Dancing) is remarkable for the rich development of all its characters, notably Neet's mother, Alberta. She first appears as a bleak woman who torments Neet with a cruel religiosity, but her backstory of forced prostitution reveals more about her; her final sacrifice redeems her. Meanwhile, Deucie, the mother who abandoned Alberta, has sneaked into Joe and Louise's cellar to die. Joe plays his sax, harmoniously connecting and resolving the separate story lines. Agent, Suzanne Gluck. (Apr. 1) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Cecil Street is a quiet, tree-lined haven in West Philadelphia, a place where everyone knows everyone else, a place removed from the turmoil and violence of the late 1960s. Yet the residents of Cecil Street have their problems. Joe and Louise's marriage is strained; Johnetta's sexy niece has arrived, ripe for trouble; and teenaged Shay tries to help best friend Neet deal with an unwanted pregnancy. When Neet's abortion goes tragically wrong, everyone on the street must rally around her, while Joe, Louise, and Neet's mother, Alberta, discover how their pasts have now drawn them together. McKinney-Whetstone's portrayal of African American family life is sensitive and compassionate, with characters who love, work, live, and die without veering into soap opera. As in her previous novels (e.g., Tumbling), ordinary people find a strength in themselves and others that enables them to live and love more fully. Recommended for all public libraries.-Ellen Flexman, Indianapolis-Marion Cty. P.L. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Joe and Louise and their 17-year-old daughter, Shay, are a well-respected family in a close-knit, working-class, black neighborhood of Philadelphia in 1969. Joe is a frustrated jazz saxophonist who gave up his musical career to please his stern and domineering wife early in their relationship, but now he rebels in quiet ways-such as having an affair with a beautiful newcomer to Cecil Street. They live next door to Shay's friend Neet, whose mother, Alberta, is a devoted follower of an extremist religion. The woman tries to make Neet conform to her strict lifestyle, but her emotionally scarred daughter sneaks out of the house regularly. When she ends up pregnant, she decides to abort the baby. Since abortions are not yet legal, Neet falls victim to a botched job by another teen. The author sensitively depicts this traumatic event, as well as pivotal events in other characters' lives that explain the complex, secret, and often painful connections among them. This richly poetic novel offers a vivid depiction of urban life during the early post-civil-rights era. The theme of how abortion rights (or the lack thereof) can impact the lives of teens could serve as a journal-writing prompt. Some students may also benefit from reading about how these characters struggle through sexual molestation or the death of a beloved parent, yet eventually heal. Students who liked Tumbling (Morrow, 1996) will find this story compelling.-Joyce Fay Fletcher, Rippon Middle School, Prince William County, VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A West Philly block in 1969. Joe, a talented musician who now plays his saxophone in the basement, where no one can hear him, is drifting apart from his wife Louise, a nurse. He'd love to get that old feeling back, but she can't think of anything except how much her gums hurt. Joe can't help being drawn to the country-girl succulence of young Valadean, a friend's niece. Not that he has any intention of his daughter Shay finding out: Shay's always been a daddy's girl, warmhearted and sweet. If only she could protect her best friend Neet from the sanctimonious meanness of her mother. But Alberta, their next-door neighbor, is so saved, can't nobody stand her. The teenage girls hang out, flirt, go too far with boys-and Neet pays for her sins when her illegal abortion is badly bungled by the abortionist's assistant and she barely survives a severe hemorrhage. The Cecil Street neighborhood closes ranks to protect the girls (and the abortionist) from the police. Some of this is heard though not understood by an old homeless woman, Deucie, hiding in Joe's basement. Deucie-she lives on the cat food Joe sets out-eavesdrops when she's not lost in memory of the prostitution, poverty, and violence that shattered her fragile sanity. Dying of cirrhosis of the liver, she is determined somehow to find the child she was forced to give up decades ago-when, in a fit of crazed grief, she marked the infant by biting it on the forehead. One of these characters still bears the scar, and what was lost will be found again, though in a somewhat improbable denouement. Heartfelt fourth from McKinney-Whetstone (Blues Dancing, 1999, etc.), who has a true talent for strong characters, effortlessly natural dialogue, andprose that flows.

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.01(d)

Read an Excerpt

Leaving Cecil Street

By McKinney-Whetstone, Diane

William Morrow & Company

ISBN: 0688163858

Chapter One

Cecil street was feeling some kind of way in 1969. Safely tucked away in the heart of West Philadelphia, this had always been a charmed block. A pleasure to walk through the way the trees lined the street from end to end and made arcs when they were in full leaf. The outsides of the houses stayed in good repair, with unchipped banister posts and porches mopped down daily because the people here sat out a lot, their soothing chatter jumping the banisters from end to end about how the numbers had come that day or what had happened on The Edge of Night. And even though the block had long ago made the transition from white to colored to Negro to Black Is Beautiful, the city still provided street cleaning twice a week in the summer when the children took to the outside and there was the familiar smack, smack of the double-Dutch rope. The sound was a predictable comfort. Like the sounds of the Corner Boys, a mildly delinquent lot consumed with pilfering Kool cigarettes or the feel of a virgin girl's behind. But as soon as Walter Cronkite signed off for the night, the Corner Boys put their voices together in a cappella harmonies that rushed this stretch of Cecil and felt like a new religion. They sang nice settling-down tunes about love and the blues. Sang as the bowls of chicken and dumplings or pans of corn bread or whatever somebody had cooked too much of were passed up and down the block. Sang while the teenagers gathered on steps under the street lamps to plait each other's hair so that their 'fros would grow out thick and full. Sang while the women who hadn't yet made the leap to the African bush put hot combs on the stove to touch up their edges for the next day. Stirred up a good nighttime mood on the block when they sang.

But now Cecil Street had a new mood working, a fire-in-the-belly feeling about bad to come. Horrible enough that Martin had been assassinated last year, but in March the wrong cracker pled guilty, they believed. The government is the cracker should be on trial, they maintained as they hosed down their fronts of the dripped Popsicle juice. Then the undeclared war was threatening to take down as many of the young black men as the heroin that some swore was being pushed in their neighborhood by the CIA. Then the milkman stopped delivering around here, and Sonny went up on his hoagies by twenty cents. Then Tim, who owned the barbershop on the corner and the apartment above it that he regularly loaned out for the pleasure takings of his married men friends, was almost stomped to death under the el stop when the police mistook him for someone who'd robbed the PSFS with a water gun. Then BB, who worked in the shadows of her back bedroom freeing the women who'd gotten caught when their diaphragms or rhythm methods failed, had her purse snatched on Sixtieth Street; she 'd just performed back-to-back procedures and was on her way to buy two hundred dollars' worth of money orders to send to her mother down south who was raising BB's severely retarded child. The market two blocks over started disrespecting the hardworking homeowners around here by keeping dirty floors and wilted lettuce and day-old bread. And now this: the tree in front of Joe and Louise's house died.

It was the summer of '69 and Joe missed that tree. Missed it so much that he put awnings out front to try and duplicate its shade. Generally upbeat, Joe felt sad about the tree right now as he stood on his porch at two in the morning, shocked again by the sight of the stump where the tree should be. Felt sad generally right now even though this was the night that his close-knit block of Cecil Street had opened itself up for the annual block party and Joe had even danced in the street earlier to "Boogaloo Down Broadway." He reasoned he was absorbing what the rest of the block seemed to be feeling lately, edgy and discontented, otherwise he had no explanation for why, now, he was out on his porch at two in the morning lifting up the square of the porch floor that led to his cellar. He hadn't been down in the cellar since the spring, but he pushed through the dust and mold and spiderwebs down there -- and the darkness. He 'd forgotten about the short in the light. His hand went instinctively to his shirt pocket for matches to give himself a spark to see by. Remembered now no shirt pocket because he was wearing a dashiki. Didn't usually wear dashikis but had worn one for the block party, worn it also hoping to impress the young woman Valadean, up here for the summer visiting relatives across the street. "Who you supposed to be, Super Black Jack?" his wife, Louise, had remarked when she'd seen him in the dashiki.

He stretched his arms through the black air in the cellar, trying to feel his way so that he wouldn't collide full body into what he could not see. Couldn't see, stacked along the wall, the boxes that should have gone to Goodwill the month the light went, couldn't see the milk crates filled with his teenage daughter's outgrown toys; couldn't even see the oil heater that took up a quarter of the wall. Nor could he see the puffy-haired, naked woman making herselfgo flat against the wall, between the toys and the heater.

Deucie Powell. She wasn't from this part of Philly. She had turned onto Cecil Street earlier looking for her grown daughter's house, wanted to reintroduce herself to her daughter after a gulf of seventeen years. Wanted to reclaim her. But she 'd gotten disoriented by the block party and ended up naked in this cellar ...


Excerpted from Leaving Cecil Street by McKinney-Whetstone, Diane Excerpted by permission.
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