No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the life and work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Guys, there is a reason this fantastic book won the Hornbook/Boston Globe award for fiction.
The son of a storeowner in Newport News, Lewis Michaux was in and out of trouble as a child and young man. Inspired by Marcus Garvey's work to connect African-Americans with Africa, Lewis found his calling when he opened up the National Memorial African Bookstore. People told him it wouldn't succeed, but with excellent salesmanship and a natural charisma, Michaux's bookstore became a landmark and an important meeting place and resource. People came to talk to him and learn from him just as much as they came for the books. He even had a library in the back where you could read and learn for free.
Michaux was Micheaux Nelson's great-uncle (she explains the "e" in her author's note.) She set out to write a biography of her relative, but so many details couldn't be tracked down (including what year the store opened!) that she just didn't have enough material, so she took what she did have and filled in the gaps and wrote a fiction book.
As she said at the Horn Book Awards "When a writer begins to invent, you need to own up to that & call it fiction" (*cough*kadirnelson*cough*)
Now this is a book told in stuff, so let's talk format.
Most of the text is told from different characters--Lewis, Lewis's family, store customers, authors, etc. Many are real, a few aren't. Most characters only speak for a few paragraphs. Mixed in are newspaper articles, photographs, and excerpts from Michaux's FBI file. These are all actual source materials and not fiction. There's some other (real) ephemera, too--newsletters, funeral notices, business cards, advertisements, etc. Running through it are R. Gregory Christie's sketches, which really add to the feel of the book.
It's fascinating reading, especially as it paints the different views within the black community during the 50s/60s/70s. Lewis and his brother differed over many things, but towards the end, especially Lewis's relationship with Malcolm X. (Malcolm X frequently spoke at the store and often got mail there. Michaux was supposed to be on stage with him with Malcolm X was assassinated, but was running late.) How much FBI material there is on him, and why, is chilling.
It's also a wonderful story about the role a bookstore played in history and the community, and everything that a bookstore offers beyond merchandise.
The "stuff" format allows Micheuax Nelson to seamlessly blend the non-fiction material she had with the fiction she created (what's what is explained in the author's note.) It also leads to a more vignette-y type narrative, which allows her to cover 70 years of his life, which out it getting bogged down or too long.
It's an important book in that it highlights a fascinating part of America's past. But it's a good book because Micheaux Nelson can tell a story. The weight of history doesn't pull it down, the extra material adds to the engaging nature of the narrative instead of detracting. She not only tells us the story of her family, but paints a wonderful picture of Harlem and the greater scene without it getting in the way of what is, at its heart, the story of a man trying to get a neighborhood to wake up and read. It all ties together in a fantastic package that deserves many more awards and a hell of a lot more buzz than it's been getting.
Book Provided by... my local library
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