Just as the Berlin Wall separated German from German, so the 10-foot-tall fence around the Lakeland district divides Chicago’s African American community in Dawn Turner Trice’s first novel.
In 1975, when 11-year-old Tempestt Saville moves in with her family, Lakeland is a square-mile enclave of privilege where black professionals live in high-rise apartments and send their children to debutante balls and cotillions.
Outside the wrought-iron, ivy-covered barrier is 35th Street, a slum that the city has neglected for generations. Only poverty and crime flourish there. Black business people operate in unsafe buildings abandoned by their white owners. Mail is delivered in a big pile that residents have to pick through.
Living on the border between these two worlds is Tempestt’s new friend Valerie Nicholae. The man believed to be Valerie’s father is a janitor in Lakeland, one of the army of black retainers who see to the comfort of the black bourgeoisie. So Valerie can attend school there, but her mother belongs to the mean streets outside.
Tempestt sees through Lakeland’s pretensions immediately, unlike her schoolteacher father, who had a deprived South Side childhood. “Temmy’s not going to fit in here,” her mother predicts. “She’s different. She’s got far more character . . . so many more possibilities.”
Miss Jonetta Goode couldn’t agree more. A middle-aged ex-prostitute who runs O’Cala’s Food and Drug on 35th Street, where liquor is sold illegally, she virtually adopts Tempestt (whom she calls Child) when the girl begins sneaking under the fence. “There was something about Child that was special,” she says. “I could tell she was coming back no matter how I warned her to stay away.”
This is a sign of the sentimentality that sometimes mars “Only Twice I’ve Wished for Heaven,” despite its warmth and energy. It isn’t a novelist’s job to tell us a character is special; it’s her job to make the character special.
Actually, Tempestt is an ordinary, if adventurous, kid whose purpose in the novel, like Scout’s in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is to view the contradictions of adult society from a child’s naive viewpoint.
But, unlike Scout, Tempestt doesn’t learn much from 20 years of hindsight. With a child’s severity, she continues to hold Lakeland responsible for the neglect that led to her friend Valerie’s degradation and death. The aspirations and fear that make its residents hold aloof from 35th Street, unwilling to get involved short of tearing the slum down, she interprets simply as snobbery, as pretending to be white.
More persuasive is Trice’s second narrator, Miss Jonetta, who was seduced as a teenager by Alfred Mayes, the charismatic pimp turned street preacher who is arrested after Valerie’s fatal plunge from a 12th-floor balcony.
Mayes’ death in prison in 1994 frees Miss Jonetta to write Tempestt with her version of the story, triggering Tempestt’s own recollections.
As Miss Jonetta tells it, 35th Street is a “horrible mess” where “young souls was always dropping off. Like pecans from a tree. And not all of them dying in ways that call for burying, either. Sometimes that’s the worst way.”
To Tempestt, though--at least at first--35th Street has an authenticity and a flavor that Lakeland lacks. O’Cala’s is a haven where life-battered but good-hearted old men named Judd, Chitlin and Fat Daddy team up to protect her from the likes of the elderly but still lascivious Mayes.
Unashamed of her past--"Wasn’t built to clean nobody’s toilet or pick nobody’s cotton"--Miss Jonetta is proof of two things: first, that Trice can create memorable characters when she lets them speak for themselves; second, that Ebonics, whatever its place in the schools, continues to enliven American literature.