MAXWELL:  Worlds apart

2/2/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

ONLY TWICE I’VE WISHED FOR HEAVEN

By Dawn Turner Trice

Reviewed by BILL MAXWELL

Urban street life _ its urgent sounds, its violence and its power to generate pathos _ has always served as an authentic backdrop for fiction about people of color in the United States.

This backdrop takes on greater symbolic meaning when the protagonists and those in their immediate circle are pilgrims from a simpler life, transplants endowed with an innocent wisdom often bringing personal tragedy. In most cases, the result is a powerful conflict between good and evil.

In Dawn Turner Trice’s novel, Only Twice I’ve Wished for Heaven, the innocent wisdom of the protagonist, Tempestt “Temmy” Saville, is established from the outset, when she speaks of events that occurred to her when she was 11 years old. Temmy, who comes of age in Chicago one summer in the 1970s, takes the reader on a voyage into Lakeland, a gated mecca for middle-class blacks on the city’s famous Southside, and into the sprawling ghetto world of 35th Street, where black people are “shooting all kinds of blues in their veins,” where there are “nasty men . . . who liked to prey on little girls.”

Narrated 20 years later, Only Twice I’ve Wished for Heaven traces the “moving on up” of a new generation of the Saville family from abject poverty to the shores of beautiful Lake Michigan, where rich blacks live in towering apartments, drink fine wines and dine on escargot and caviar.

Temmy, however, finds her new environment boring and sanitized. The gritty sounds and smells and dilapidation of the forbidden strip immediately capture her imagination and, finally, her being. Here, she meets Miss Jonetta Goode, a burned-out hooker who knows the personal histories of all on 35th Street, whose own past becomes an intriguing subplot. And like everyone else in this ghetto world, Temmy finds her fate tied to that of Alfred Mayes, an amoral street preacher who calls himself a devotee of “fine young thangs,” such as Temmy.

The tale’s most poignant tragedy involves Valerie, Temmy’s best friend. Valerie’s short life, along with that of her survivalist mother, Ruth, symbolizes the future of black children who have been abandoned by adults, who themselves are trapped in self-interest and hopelessness.

When learning that Ruth supports her drug habit by selling Valerie’s innocence to men, Temmy and Miss Jonetta try to save the girl. But no one can save Valerie from the Rev. Mayes, who is convicted and imprisoned for murdering his child victim.

And although he is evil incarnate, Mayes represents a tiny part of the larger sin in this underworld: the separation of the classes. Indeed, the chasm between the upscale blacks of Lakeland and the habitues of 35th Street is transformed into an ideology. Valerie, a child of the ghetto, lives mere yards from the safety of Lakeland. But she is not permitted inside, for she is a stranger to her own people, African-Americans of a higher class.

“Despite what lay outside the fence on Thirty-fifth Street, whatever the world had told black people they couldn’t do or be or wish for, it didn’t apply to the residents of Lakeland,” Temmy says. “Within the confines of that ivy-lined wrought-iron fence lived this elite group of people who had been allowed to purge their minds of all those things that reminded them of what it meant to be poor and downtrodden. Once here, Lakelandites didn’t look back. They surely didn’t want to look back.”

If Only Twice I’ve Wished for Heaven has a serious flaw, it is the heavy didacticism that often disrupts the narrative. Otherwise, Trice has written an engaging and highly readable first novel.

Bill Maxwell lived in the 35th Street area during the time depicted in the novel. He is a Times editorial writer and columnist.