In 1961 Charlotte, North Carolina, the predominantly black neighborhood of Brooklyn is a bustling city within a city. Self-contained and vibrant, it has its own restaurants, schools, theaters, churches, and night clubs. There are shotgun shacks and poverty, along with well-maintained houses like the one Loraylee Hawkins shares with her young son, Hawk, her Uncle Ray, and her grandmother, Bibi.
Loraylee has heard rumors that the city plans to bulldoze her neighborhood, claiming it’s dilapidated and dangerous. The government promises to provide new housing and relocate businesses. But locals like Pastor Ebenezer Polk, who’s facing the demolition of his church, know the value of Brooklyn does not lie in bricks and mortar. Generations have lived, loved, and died here, supporting and strengthening each other. Yet street by street, longtime residents are being forced out.
After having really enjoyed The Dry Grass of August, I was really looking forward to reading this new novel by Anna Jean Mayhew but I’m afraid it turned out to be a disappointment. the premise of the plot surrounds the true story of the destruction of a predominantly black neighbourhood in Brooklyn, North Carolina, which has been earmarked for redevelopment by the city fathers in the 1960s. The homes in the neighbourhood have been classed as slums despite the existence of well-maintained houses where generations of families have lived.
Our first main protagonist is Loraylee Hawkins, a single mother of a mixed race son who is desperately trying to keep her family together. Loraylee lives with her elderly grandmother, Bibi, whose memory is failing her and her widowed uncle, Ray, who acts as a surrogate father to Loraylee’s young son, Hawk, who is the result of Loraylee’s affair with her white boss, Archibald Griffin, which she keeps a secret. Loraylee’s time with her family is the closest we get to the community feeling Mayhew was trying to achieve because we don’t really get to see this for ourselves. Instead, we get a series of events where disparate characters flit in and out of Loraylee’s life and we are told rather than shown how they fit into the community.
Reading accounts of the true story, many of the residents believed they would be able to return to their homes once the renewal had been completed but I never got the sense the characters in the book believed this to be true. The demolition of the neighbourhood was a really traumatic event in the lives of this community but I never once felt that loss as Loraylee’s family seem to recover quickly and it turned out to be such a positive step for them.
The problem continues with our second narrator, Reverend Ebenezer Polk, who is mourning the loss of his beloved wife, Nettie, and facing up to the prospect of losing his church which is due to be demolished along with its cemetery. Polk has been the local pastor for decades and his story should have been at the heart of the novel as he has witnessed countless births, marriages and deaths, but instead he is embroiled in a mystery which never seems to go anywhere. Polk seems more concerned with the fate of the cemetery rather than his flock as he believes there are unmarked graves containing the bodies of unidentified former slaves. The city employs an anthropologist to help relocate the bodies in a respectful manner who becomes involved in the mystery of the slave burials but it ultimately leads nowhere and all seems rather pointless in the end.
Our third protagonist is a white woman, Persephone Marshall, whose lawyer husband is part of the Brooklyn Redevelopment Commission which makes her uneasy. From a privileged background, Persy makes her first foray into the Brooklyn area when she is seeking a seamstress to make a christening gown for the baby she is expecting. Persy is struck by the neatness of the neighbourhood and the well-kept homes which is at odds with what she has been led to believe. When we meet Persy again her pregnancy is never mentioned and it took me a while to realise time had jumped forward but chapters pass before we learn the baby was stillborn. The time lapses are a huge problem in this book as the story moves back and forward in an almost incoherent manner which is confusing and makes the story seem disjointed.
It’s a number of years before Persy and Loraylee meet at the beach and an emergency situation brings them closer together which makes it appear both women have gained a new friend. However, the friendship goes nowhere and neither are destined to meet again. As the years pass, Persy has a lot of sympathy for the plight of the Brooklyn residents but she never gets involved and her presence in the book seems rather ineffectual. Learning Loraylee and her family have been evicted, Persy’s sole contribution is to leave boxes and other packing materials on their porch.
While Tomorrow’s Bread seemed to hold a lot of promise, I just didn’t connect with it or the characters which was very disappointing. Nevertheless, it won’t put me off reading more of Mayhew’s work.