The third in Kevin Baker's cinematic trilogy spotlighting momentous episodes in the history of New York City, Strivers Row brings to vivid life all that was Harlem in 1943 the country in the midst of war overseas, the city seething with crime, poverty and politics fueled by racism.
As a teenager, Malcolm Little escapes from Lansing, Michigan, to Harlem, where amazingly he discovers color everywhere . . . like in the Wizard of Oz. Working on the train from Boston to New York, Malcolm encounters Jonah Dove, a young Harlem minister. When Jonah is harassed by a group of intoxicated white soldiers, Malcolm intervenes the first of several times their paths will fortuitously cross.
Malcolm's newfound world leads him to the roles of hustler, numbers runner and drug dealer, with forays into the writings of the nation of Islam that gradually lead to his transformation into Malcolm X. Jonah lives on Strivers Row, the formerly white enclave now populated by blacks on the rise. The son of a biracial preacher, Jonah is losing his ability to preach; he's depressed by the poverty surrounding him and horrified by stories of the genocide of Jews overseas.
Encompassing these two loosely connected portraits is Baker's kaleidoscopic evocation of Harlem itself. His renderings of this oasis, simultaneously mired in poverty and throbbing with music and high fashion, burst from every page, as vivid to the reader as an exhibit of photographs. From the mobs of promenaders strolling down Seventh Avenue on a Sunday, to the drug-infused haze of the after-hours clubs, his camera's eye is there. The background is laid for the novel's culminating Harlem riot, stoked by the seething, random hatred that Jonah feels all around him.
Baker's research for this novel was meticulous, beginning, obviously, with The Autobiography of Malcolm X and continuing with journalism and literature of the day. As both a historical treatise and an empathetic portrait of a pivotal black figure in American history, Baker's concluding volume in his masterful trilogy succeeds on every level. Deborah Donovan writes from Cincinnati.