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Racial Matters

Can Gouster Girl Be Appreciated by non-Chicagoans?

Gouster Girl is a historical novel set on the South Side of Chicago in the early 1960s, a time of incredible racial tension in Chicago and around the country.  One concern I had about the novel from early on was whether it would be of interest to people who had little knowledge or connection to Chicago.
Yesterday, I received two comments that shed light on that question. The first was a comment on Amazon from a reader who wonders about that exact question--if Gouster Girl has appeal outside of Chicago:
For me, reading this book was like meeting up with an old friend from fifty years ago. Like Jeff, the book's protagonist, I too grew up in South Shore in the 1960s and lived through the racial tensions and violence. Much of what Jeff experienced I also experienced a few years later at South Shore High School.
My experiences growing up were instrumental in shaping who I am today, and it was interesting to see my feelings corroborated in this book.


Nevertheless, I wonder whether this book will appeal to those who did not grow up in South Shore in the 1960s. Dear readers, I challenge you to find out.
So I took the challenge, or shall I say, by coincidence I received a second comment yesterday from a psychologist I know, who grew up in Pennsylvania in the 1950s and 1960s, and was captivated by Gouster Girl:
Our divisions growing up were very much related to social class - blue collar vs. white collar. But we didn't have the intense racial and religious divides you describe  in Gouster Girl. For me, the story brought back some of the angst and general visceral discomfort about identity and social connections of those year and multiplied it by 100!
The intense stress and confusion and hatred described in your book is so painfully moving. Somehow the general context of the age group plus the racial and religious divides that existed — and which were actually enhanced by the government, police, cultural, real estate practices, etc.-- felt almost unbearable to me. You did a wonderful job of fostering this strong emotional experience that I had in the reading of the book.
So the initial feedback is encouraging. Gouster Girl may well have life beyond Chicago.

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Only Eddie Murphy Could Make Inner-City Racial Conflict So Funny

Black comedian Eddie Murphy made a triumphal return to Saturday Night Live a few weeks ago and revived some of the characters he played when he was last on 35 years ago, including Buckwheat and Gumby.
But it was his reincarnation of "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood," the takeoff on Mr. Rogers, that probably drew the most laughs, especially this monolog within the sketch: 

Mister Robinson (Eddie Murphy) tying his shoes: "My neighborhood has gone through so much. It's going through something called 'gentrification.' Can you say, 'gentrification,' boys and girls?  
"It's like a magic trick. White people pay a lot of money and, poof, all the black people are gone." 
"You know where the black people go?" Pause, as Murphy looks wide-eyed, and prepares to deliver his punch line. 
"They all go to Atlanta!!!"
The crowd loved it, in large part because the joke is over in less than 30 seconds, which is about as much time as most whites want to think about such unpleasantness as poor blacks being displaced by well-to-do whites in old city areas of New York, Baltimore, San Diego, Washington, DC, and others. 
Back in the early 1980s, when Murphy launched his takeoff on Mr. Rogers, he was doing jokes about "white flight," which in a sense is the flip side of gentrification. Instead of whites moving back into the city to displace blacks, back then blacks were crowding into white neighborhoods, and whites were fleeing, often to the suburbs. 
It all began in the 1950s and 1960s, when blacks who were part of the Second Great Migration from the South, were pouring into northern big cities. Whites felt threatened with the prospect of not just living among blacks, but living among poor blacks. While the whites feared crime, they also feared their property values would decline. The South Shore neighborhood of Chicago, where Michelle Obama grew up, saw some two-thirds of its white folks flee during the decade 1960-70.
In Chicago, the mass exodus of whites, and eventually of middle-class blacks, led to the rise of mostly black street gangs that to this day continue to raise havoc via shootouts that claim young blacks kids and teens as victims. 
My novel, Gouster Girl, is about the trauma of racial conflict and the white flight that took place in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago in the early 1960s. It's told through the eyes of an interracial teenage couple in love, and when you read it, you'll begin to understand why so many whites and blacks don't want to spend much longer than the few seconds Eddie Murphy devoted to the subject of inner-city racial turnover in "Mister Robinson's neighborhood." 

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A Different Sort of Writing--My First Novel Is Born

I've been spending lots of time over the last few years on a very different sort of writing project for me: my first novel. A lot different than writing about real food or starting a business, or the Holocaust. Now, at long last, after many stops and starts, hopeful progress and difficult frustration, it's finally going prime time.


With launch day finally at hand, I feel a little like I did as a reporter having his first bylined article published—proud and more than a little nervous. Like a lot of what I've written over the years, the novel is controversial—it's about race, and it's almost impossible to write about race these days without being seen as controversial, even if you didn't mean to be.


Anyway, the novel's title is Gouster Girl. To understand the meaning of the title, I'm afraid you're going to have to read the novel. I can tell you that it's a historical novel about an especially dark period in Chicago's racial history that foretells many of the difficulties burdening the city today. 


The good news is that Gouster Girl is available in digital formats at a very low introductory price. The book is also available in paperback at a somewhat higher price (though still quite affordable).


The story is set in the early 1960s in the Chicago neighborhood of South Shore, made famous by Michelle Obama in her recent book "Becoming." She spends the opening 60 or so pages recalling her fond memories of this lakefront neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. She refers in passing to the "white flight" still ongoing when her family moved in during the late 1960s.


"Gouster Girl" is a love story. Nerdy white Jeff Stark falls in love with cute black Valerie Davis, except that on Chicago's South Side in 1963, that is a risky affair. At first, Valerie and Jeff help each other out of tough racial fixes—he saves her from attack at an all-white amusement park and she saves him from injury in a racial brawl at school. But as their romance becomes more serious, so do the racial dangers.


I've long appreciated that growing up on Chicago's South Side was an unusual experience. People would move out from one day to the next, without telling friends or neighbors, or sometimes even their own kids till the movers showed up. The white flight from South Shore was pretty much over and done in the 1960s, when Gouster Girl takes place; an astounding two-thirds of South Shore's 65,000 whites fled during that decade. During the 1970s and 1980s, many middle-class blacks departed as well, leaving much of South Shore and neighboring areas to the very tough black street gangs that rule today.


As the South Side of Chicago has evolved into something of a gang-dominated community on the order of Honduras or El Salvador , I decided to write "Gouster Girl" as a way of explaining how it all began going bad.


Part of what I wanted to get across is that the travails of the South Side are much more nuanced than either liberal or conservative political dogma would have us believe. Liberals tend to see it as an outgrowth mainly of systemic racism and police brutality. Conservatives often use it to "prove" their point that gun control laws can't work, since all the gang violence is happening despite tough Chicago gun-control laws.


If you decide to read it, please comment on Amazon. And thanks for your ongoing support.

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