The Street by Ann Petry

Happy almost Easter!

Since I last wrote, I have finished my term in Cardiff and am currently staying at my parents’ house for Easter break. Whilst being here I have been working on essays and doing some reading for my dissertation. This is still in very early stages, so the books I am reading now may or may not actually make it into the dissertation. We shall see. I have just finished reading The Street (1946), by Ann Petry. It was the first novel written by an African-American woman to sell a million copies and despite this nobody I have spoken to has ever heard of it. Granted, I live in the UK, but there are just as many American novels in circulation here as British ones.

Set in Harlem in the 1940’s, the book centres around young mother Lutie Johnson, defiant and proud, determined to achieve a better life for her and her son, Bub. The apartment building she moves into has a motley crew of characters, including the super, who is a terrible, violent, manipulative human being, and his girlfriend, who only really interacts with him. Alongside these is a madam who runs a brothel out of her apartment, who repeatedly tells Lutie that she could easily make money if she could swallow her pride and sell her body, but also helps both Lutie and her son escape some sticky situations. Lutie encounters two unsavory gentlemen called Boots and Junto who also let her know she can make money through using her body. Although Lutie has the majority of the narrative, we hear from the other characters intermittently, which gives the reader the impression of looking into the windows of the building and making the narrative visceral and immersive.

It’s not a happy book, and from other reading I have done it paints a very accurate picture of the life of an African-American woman living in the 40’s. Due to the war and the depression it was easier for women than men to gain employment, as poorly paid as it was, meaning Lutie has to raise her son and save money with no help from her husband, who quite quickly takes up with another woman. In the second part of the book, the reader feels more and more Lutie’s frustration with her situation and inability to change such a racist and stagnant society. Her desperation and the knowledge that she is fighting a losing battle means that eventually she snaps, and the novel ends bleakly.

I would recommend this book to anybody; after the first few chapters I really struggled to put it down and the characters are incredibly well-formed. The next book I will be reading is another Petry novel called The Narrows, and after reading The Street, I can’t wait.

 

Thanks for reading!

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