August’s mother is dead at the end. We find this out in the opening line of Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. “For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet.” There it is, the tragic plot twist, given away by the candid retrospective voice of the narrator. But this novel isn’t another one about death or grief or any of the common themes typically associated with tragedy. It’s about youth, friendship, healing, learning. Above all, it’s about memory.
The two main characters in this story are August the Protagonist and August the Narrator. August the Narrator is an adult anthropologist obsessed with the ways in which different cultures interact with death. She has just returned to her old neighborhood for her father’s funeral. This loss parallels and contrasts with the story she tells of August the Protagonist, an eight–year–old black girl who has just migrated to Brooklyn with her father and brother, leaving her mother behind in her ancestral farmland in Tennessee. The circumstances surrounding this flight—why they left in the night, why her mother stayed, where her mother is now—are mysterious to both young August and the reader.
August the Protagonist is trapped in her time and place: post–Vietnam War Brooklyn. Hypodermic needles, legless veterans and prostitutes are common sights. Black families from all corners of the United States and the world congregate here, while white ones flee in moving vans. “Everywhere we looked, we saw people trying to dream themselves out,” says August the Narrator. “As though there was someplace other than this place. As though there was another Brooklyn.” August the Protagonist cannot escape the world changing around her, her psyche changing inside of her, her body changing outside of her as the years fall away and lead her to the age of fifteen. For survival—both physical and mental—she latches on to a group of friends that defines her adolescence.
“If we had had jazz, would we have survived differently?” August the Narrator asks. “Because even though Sylvia, Angela, Gigi and I came together like a jazz improv—half notes tentatively moving toward one another until the ensemble found its footing and the music felt like it had always been playing—we didn’t have jazz to know this was who we were. We had the top 40 music of the 1970s trying to tell our story. It never quite figured us out.”
But unlike the bound August the Protagonist, August the Narrator’s advanced age frees her, to an extent, from the limitations of her place and time. Her academic endeavors send her far from Brooklyn to study ancient traditions surrounding death in Korea, Indonesia, Mongolia. The immediate moment no longer feels like forever as it did in her youth, and her mind is full of memories to visit, willingly or otherwise. That’s why it’s this August who narrates the story.
At several moments in the novel, the two Augusts blur into each other. This happens most notably when she comes across an opportunity to either allow people to dissolve to memory or to allow memories to once again take shape in her present. In a few infuriating scenes, she asks her father about the contents of the urn he keeps in their living room, refusing to allow her mother to become memory. In others, she fails to show up to an important event or ignores an old friend passing by, refusing to allow these things to exist in her present.
Yet it seems that August the Narrator has gained some understanding of her memory and the delusion in which she once so tightly wrapped herself. She does, after all, begin the novel by stating the fact that her mother is dead, even as August the Protagonist, newly arrived in Brooklyn, is barely speaking, her grief and denial too extreme for language. “Where words had once flowed easily,” says the Narrator. “I was suddenly silent, breath snatched from me, replaced by a melancholy my family couldn’t understand.”
Then, when she develops her new friend group, her voice returns. “We opened our mouths,” the Narrator says, “and let the stories that had burned nearly to ash in our bellies finally live outside of us.” August the Protagonist becomes enraptured in the stories she and her new friends live together.
Amidst all these normal disenchantments and disappointments of August’s coming–of–age, August the Protagonist still seeks shelter under her delusion. Even as her friends and father and brother maintain or retain their grip on reality, she insists that her mother will return “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” And even though we, the readers, know that this is not true, we remain in suspense. Much like Romeo and Juliet—a story whose ending is no secret but whose telling can still elicit laughter and tears—Another Brooklyn is written in such captivating, poetic language that it doesn’t matter that we know who’s dead at the end. Just like Romeo and Juliet, August sweeps us up in her youth, her delusion, her romance, her struggle. But unlike Romeo and Juliet’s story, August’s does not unravel before her. It is carried inside of her, wrapped up tightly but not securely, threatening to come undone at any moment. She can never quite organize it into an opening, rising action, a climax, falling action, a tragic ending.
And the result is beautiful. In the refrain, “This is memory,” the reader sees themselves in August, because we, too have memories. But, more than that, we are memories. The true drama of the novel comes not from our concern about the fate of August’s mother or of August herself, but of ourselves—the memories we have and the memories we become.