Strivers Rowby Kevin Baker
The Rev. Jonah Dove is the son of a legendary Harlem minister, and a man troubled in both mind and spirit. He feels himself unworthy and incapable of taking up the burden of running his church from the larger–than–life figure who is his father. He is haunted both by his own, shameful history of "passing" as a white man in college, and by the prospects
The Rev. Jonah Dove is the son of a legendary Harlem minister, and a man troubled in both mind and spirit. He feels himself unworthy and incapable of taking up the burden of running his church from the larger–than–life figure who is his father. He is haunted both by his own, shameful history of "passing" as a white man in college, and by the prospects for his people in the harsh, new, racist age he fears the world is entering. Malcolm Little –– better known as Malcom X –– is a teenage hustler from Lansing, Michigan by way of Boston, a young man on the make, trying always to be something bigger, tougher, savvier, and more confident than he really is.
On his way to New York, Malcolm happens to come to the rescue of Jonah and his wife, Amanda, when they are attacked by some drunken soldiers on the train. From then on, their paths cross repeatedly as they each go about trying to find what they really want out of the roiling, wartime city, until the moment when Harlem finally erupts around them, as a people driven beyond endurance strikes out blindly at all the forces keeping it entrapped in misery and hopelessness. Stranded on the streets of a rioting city, Jonah and Malcolm meet each other once more, as they come to grips with what they are and what the future will hold for them.
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He thought about the rabbits sometimes, lying awake at night in the little room in Ella's house, under the eaves.
It had been back in West Lansing, when he was twelve years old, just after his mother had taken ill and they had all been split up. A Sunday afternoon in the late fall, nearly winter. The smell of something burning off in the distance. The men and boys walking through the yellowed grass, holding the straining dogs tight on their leashes. Malcolm was walking with Mr. Gohannas and Big Boy, dangling the .22 off his hip, trying to whip it all about like he'd seen the gunfighters do in the Western serials. He held it to his eye and aimed it here, there, even at the backs of the men around him, until one of them turned and caught him.
"You watch that gun, boy," he scolded. "Don't you be pointing it at nobody!"
Malcolm had dropped his head down, holding the gun steadier, glancing up furtively now at the other men to see if they had noticed his shame. All of them darker than he was, their skin the color of burnt coffee or railroad coal, faces lined and creased like worn car seats. Wearing their field overalls and work boots, redolent with the scent of men's sweat and dirt. Some of them with their boys next to them -- wearing their handed-down overalls; faces exactly the same only smoother, as if all the creases had been ironed out. Their ragged hair knotted up in burrs and tangles, like the farmers they were and would always be.
"Get ready now," Mr. Gohannas told them, his voice urgent though still kindly.
"Right 'bout here -- "
The men stopped at the edge of an open field. At its far end Malcolm could make out a tangled clump of bent scrub trees, and thorn bushes. The men looked at each other, a few of them nodding solemnly, then they let the dogs go and began to fan out, kneeling in the high grass.
"Here they come now!"
The loosed dogs had run straight toward the thicket, baying and scuffling their way in past the lowered tree branches. There was silence for a few, long moments -- then the renewed sound of pounding feet, as the first rabbits flew out from the bushes. Lean, gray, winter hares, leaping ahead with their eyes wide and their long ears back, the dogs scrambling after them.
"Easy now," the man nearest to Malcolm whispered tenderly to his son, a boy younger than Malcolm was, toting a shotgun.
"Let them come back -- "
Leaving the hounds still immersed in the brambles, the hares made a wide, panicked bolt around the perimeter of the field. Running so fast and hard that Malcolm thought they must surely escape -- the only sound their powerful, widened winter feet thumping softly over the grass. He could not understand why the men hadn't fired, all these old, slow, black men still staring out from the bushes, and he rose as if to run after the rabbits. But then he felt Mr. Gohannas's hand on his arm, pulling him back down -- and sure enough, the hares turned and headed back, toward their hidey-holes in the thicket.
"Now!" the man next to him exclaimed, and his boy fired the crude old shotgun. The blast knocked him flat on his back but the birdshot picked off one of the galloping hares in midair, flipping his thin gray rabbit body head over heels, leaving him to twitch and heave on the ground.
The rest of the men and boys fired at nearly the same time -- a fusillade from all their battered, ancient guns that stunned and nearly deafened Malcolm. He shut his eyes, and lowered his head against the noise. When he looked up again he could see five or six more hares on the ground. The younger boys already running out to claim theirs, picking them up by their long ears and smashing their heads with lengths of lead pipe if they were still moving, an act that made Malcolm look away, and his stomach turn over.
"Here now," Mr. Gohannas told him, placing a gentle hand on his chest and turning him around.
The dogs were already flushing the thicket again, and a few minutes later out came more hares. Running slower and a little raggedly this time, if just as frightened. For all of their fear they ran in the exact same direction, around the edge of the field. Making the same long loop back to their homes, the men firing and yelling exultantly as they turned.
Malcolm fired wildly himself, his shot rustling the branches in some nearby trees, the men nearest to him snorting in surprise and indignation --
"Where you shootin', boy?"
-- but he had an idea now. The dogs went in to flush the hares a third time -- both dogs and hares moving noticeably slower now -- and after he reloaded Malcolm scrambled out of the blind before Mr. Gohannas could stop him, Big Boy calling plaintively after him.
"Hey, where you goin', Malcolm?"
He was already running up along the border of the field, his cracked, patent leather city shoes slipping along the dead winter grass. He ran to a spot that was halfway along the hares' trajectory, as best he could figure it, just before the point where they were bound to turn and head back to their thicket. He heard the alarmed shouts of the men behind him, but he ignored them. Kneeling and aiming carefully this time, taking down one hare, then another, before they ever got back within range of the rest of the hunters. The exhausted creatures always flipping over the same way, their long back feet catapulting them over in one final, cinematic somersault.
When the shooting stopped it was Malcolm who ran out after them this time, plucking his hares up by their big ears. Ignoring the continuing, angry shouts of the older, blacker men -- smiling to himself, to think how he had been able to figure it out when the rest of them had not. They broke cover and ran up to him, Mr. Gohannas among them, his wide, brown face looking uncomfortable behind his spectacles.
The foregoing is excerpted from Strivers Row by Kevin Baker. All rights reserved. . No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
Meet the Author
Kevin Baker is the bestselling author of the novels Dreamland, Paradise Alley, and Sometimes You See It Coming. He is a columnist for American Heritage magazine and a regular contributor to the New York Times, Harper's, and other periodicals. He lives in New York City with his wife, the writer Ellen Abrams, and their cat, Stella.
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Kevin Baker has already proven himself to be a master of modern historical fiction with Dreamland and Paradise Alley. Now, he completes his City of Fire trilogy with the unforgettable Strivers Row, the story of a time as reflected in the lives of two men, Malcolm and Jonah. We first meet Malcolm when he's still a boy after his mother has been taken ill. He is out hunting for hares with Mr. Gohannas and others. He describes the group by saying, 'All of them darker than he was, their skin the color of burnt coffee or railroad coal, faces lined and creased like worn car seats. Wearing their field overalls and work boots, redolent with the scent of men's sweat and dirt. Some of them with their boys next to them -- wearing their handed-down overalls faces exactly the same only smoother, as if all the creases had been ironed out. Their ragged hair knotted up in burrs and tangles, like the farmers they were and would always be.' As a 12-year-old Malcolm may be unfamiliar with how to use a .22, but he's clever and soon figures out the path that the frightened hares always take when rousted by the dogs. Soon, he's off by himself shooting the frightened creatures as they run, bagging more than any of the others. When he reaches adulthood he remembers the rabbits, as an adult he is civil rights leader Malcolm X. Set in Harlem in 1943 the scene is one of trouble waiting to happen. At this time Malcolm is young, self-important, without direction. Reverend Jonah Dove is the minister of one of the largest churches in Harlem and lives in the heart of that area known as Striver's Row. Fate steps in when it is Malcolm who saves Jonah and his wife from the brutal hands of some drunken white soldiers. For Malcolm this is something he soon forgets the assault and rescue affects Jonah quite differently. However, despite the pleasures he enjoys Malcolm has never found peace within himself, which haunts him and brings about a dramatic change in his thinking. Yet life is about to be changed for many as race riots begin and before long Malcolm and Jonah are thrown together once again. Each must confront this devastation in his own way. Baker's description of the Harlem that was with the Apollo Theater and vendors selling trinkets on street corners is so intensely real that one can almost hear the sounds and feel the tension. Thomas Anthony Penny offers a fine voice performance, becoming by turns a self indulgent man who battles racism in his own way and a minister who could pass for white and is often unsure of exactly where he belongs. All the while Penny recreates a pivotal era in American history with his attention to the nuances of Baker's story. - Gail Cooke