Straight, the protagonist of WHERE I’LL BE IF I’M NOT THERE, (the title story of Ms. Mintz’s chapbook) has some ‘splainin’ to do: To his lady love, his young daughter and, most importantly, to himself. The crime that got him 3-years incarceration is beside the point, and never specified. The story is about how Straight will react to once more having to navigate the treacherous straits of freedom.
Author Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz writes from a black working-class perspective. The details of many of her stories make one hope that she has at least made up some of the more lurid plot points, seeing as how they involve underage prostitution, incest and murder. Close to half of the stories are inhabited by protagonists who are growing up in fatherless homes, a reality that has plagued the black community for decades. The story where the father is still around is tempered by the fact he is not exactly the father figure you’d typically want him to be: Daddy beat Mr. Bailey dead but didn’t nobody know but me. An excellent example of a killer first line, by the way.
The characters speak a dialect of American English most commonly used by the poorer classes of black Americans. It’s very well done and grounds the reader in Ms. Mintz’s intended milieu. The stories in this chapbook also take some interesting detours from the standard form. THE STORY OF MY LIFE (SO FAR) is broken up in sections diagramming the pertinent parts of a story, such as setting, the characters, plot development, etc. in order to tell the unified story of a girl dealing with the incestuous proclivities of her step father; HUSH CHILD SHHH a moving account of an actual news story about the forgotten slave cemetery beneath the foundations of an old building that was discovered when the building was demolished and the subsequent reburial with due honor of all the bones that were found. The commentary by the ghost of the long-suffering mother speaking to her child interspersed in the factual accounts of the news story makes this a compelling and powerfully cathartic story.
The best of these stories transcends any notion of black and/or white America, instead focusing through the universal lens of hope. The best example of this being the aforementioned title story: WHERE I’LL BE IF I’M NOT THERE. Interestingly, the moment of truth in this story is precipitated by what can rightly be called a father figure. His boss, Mr. Gilbert, leaves the cash drawer in the bakery for Straight to open up with in the morning while he is away.
Mr. Gilbert had added instructions on how to run the register.
The paper trembled in Straight’s hand.
Will Straight do the right thing, or take the money and run? This time, his name is true. And Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz, at her best, finds the hope and softness in a world of sorrow and hard edges.
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