Review: The Street by Ann Petry
Title: The Street
Author: Petry, Ann
Length: 436 pages
Genre: Fiction, History
Publisher / Year: Mariner Books / 1946
Source: From Amazon.ca
Why I Read It: The seventh read for The Real Help project project with Amanda.
Date Read: 10/12/11
Note: This is a project initiated by Amanda and I to read the books recommended by the Association of Black Women Historians as alternatives to The Help. Please see the dedicated page I created for more information and for a schedule. We are hoping that more readers join us and we are also looking for others to host discussions. For discussion of this title, continue reading.
Finally our reading through the project book list has given us a novel set around the same time period as The Help, discussing what it was like to be a maid and to live as a black woman during the years of Jim Crow. This book is set in New York in the early 1940s and follows a number of characters who all live on a certain street and who struggle to get by for various reasons.
The main character is Lutie Johnson who worked as a maid for some time during which her husband took up with another woman because he couldn’t stand her being gone all the time and the shame of his having no job. We also follow Bub, Lutie’s eight-year old son, Jones, the Super of the building, Mrs. Hedges who also lives in the building, and a few others.
Lutie has learned from the white couple she worked for that all it takes is hard work to get by, and is sure that if it worked for them then that is the secret and she can do the same. What she finds through the novel is that things aren’t so easy for someone like her, someone who is colored. The book highlights the fallacy of the idea that the only reason people don’t get ahead is that they are lazy. It shows how the capitalism dream hurts everyone, especially in an unequal society, as the family she worked for suffered and she suffered as well. In the capitalist system having money, she could see, allowed one to live easier through bribes and such, again highlighting the hurt it causes.
There were many things that I liked about this book, the main being Lutie’s belief and watching her struggle to get by and to improve her and Bub’s situation in life through her hard work. The story really shows the various types of discrimination and as Lutie thinks on them it never feels contrived, it comes up naturally and we are reminded again and again of how little options really existed. We are shown how poverty and the structure of society worked together to tear black families apart as men had no work options, women were out of the home working as maids and struggling to take care of their own as well, causing resentment and shame and all types of other emotions to seep in to the home and destroy what was there. It also shows what happens to children as they are left alone in dangerous situations.
At the same time, there were many things that I didn’t like about this book, the main being the portrayal of Jones. All of the characters really seemed to be fairly well-rounded and we could see who they were and what made them that way, except for Jones. We are supposed to believe that he is a predator with no morals, basically, wanting only young women, angry he can’t get them, and going so far as to try to take them by force simply because he worked in ships and in basements. The book reads, on page 191:
There was no telling what went on in the mind of a man like that – a man who had lived in basements and cellars, a man who had forever to stay within hailing distance of whatever building he was responsible for.
The last thing she thought before she finally went to sleep was that the Super was something less than human. He had been chained to buildings until he was like an animal.
This portrayal felt so stereotypical and unfair that I felt uncomfortable each time reading sections that discussed him like this. Many people have jobs on boats or in buildings and I would hardly say that makes them less than human or makes them predators who will attack young women. I understand that Petry was trying to show the dangers of the few options men had for making money and how it could ruin a life by having men always out to sea or etc, but I think it went much too far and portrayed him too negatively for the paltry explanation that was given.
In all, another interesting read. I would definitely recommend this one for anyone looking for more books on what it was like for women at that time, and what they really thought of working as a maid. I would love to know, however, what others think of the portrayal of Jones.