Last Summer on State Street by Toya Wolfe

“Our friendships started with “What’s your name?” The answer carried with it looks that I can still see clearly: Stacia’s begged me not to talk to her, and Tonya’s asked, “Is she talking to me?!” We got past those facial expressions and gave our names. Names that sound like heartbeats: Fe Fe, Precious, Stacia, Tonya.”

Last Summer on State Street is a scintillating and profoundly poignant coming-of-age novel charting Fe Fe’s fraught girlhood & the tragic dissolution of her friendship group.

“We were so different, but everybody loved them some double Dutch. Sometimes we made a tight-knit crew; other days we couldn’t get along for nothing.”

Our narrator, Fe Fe, looks back to the summer of 1999, her last summer in the housing projects of Chicago. She used to spend her days with her closest friends playing Double Dutch, blissfully unaware of the events to come. The introduction of a fourth girl into her group upsets certain dynamics, and Fe Fe finds herself torn between developing a new friendship and holding onto her old ones. But friend-drama is not all that occupies her mind, as Fe Fe soon grows apprehensive at how her community is being upended from their neighbourhood, with high-rises being torn down by the Chicago Housing Authority. In addition, Fe Fe has to reckon with the gang-related activities and their hold on two of her friends. After a police ‘raid’ results in Fe Fe’s older brother being detained, he too spins further away from her, as he finds security and purpose in joining the local gang. Fe Fe not only has to cope without her beloved brother and two of her friends (one who has gone missing, the other seems out to get her) but her mother’s depression and heartbreak at her son’s ‘chosen’ path. Fe Fe wants to help those she loves, her friends, her brother, and her community, but she is soon forced to recognise that you can’t always save others, especially if they think that they do not need saving, to begin with. The narrative grapples with questions of right and wrong, but in a way that feels anything but simplistic or moralistic. There is a certain open-endedness and ambiguity to Fe Fe’s story that made her experiences seem all the more real. I found her struggles all the more affecting as I am myself experiencing a situation where I want to help someone who is very self-destructive and unwilling/unable to accept that they need help to begin with (to be less vague: the person in question is my father who is an alcoholic & drug addict).

“That summer, one by one, they dropped out of sight as if we were in a game of All in Together.”

A sense of apprehension permeates much of the narrative, and the possibility of danger is always around the corner. From the brutal taking of Fe Fe’s brother to the disappearance of Fe Fe’s new friend. While the narrator does render the fear and anxiety created by living in such proximity to gangs, her ‘adult’ knowledge allows her to view their actions with more nuance. That is not to say that she condones their violence and criminal activities but we see how racial institutions promote the formation of such gangs as well as interrogating the trauma and alienation that would lead someone to join them. For instance, in the case of Fe Fe’s brother, we see how disempowered and afraid he feels after he is the victim of discrimination & racial profiling at the hands of the police. Or how difficult it is to untangle yourself from a gang if your entire family is part of that gang.
In addition to presenting us with a bittersweet portrait of female friendships & Black girlhood, the author explores the hyper-sexualisation & adultification of young Black girls, the criminalization of young Black men, and the bleak realities of living with neglectful and/or dysfunctional parents. Over the course of this summer, Fe Fe is forced into growing up, and we are forced to witness her trying to navigate dangerous and otherwise untenable circumstances. As those she loves to seem to spin further and further away from her, Fe Fe desperately struggles to hold onto them. As she watches her world irrevocably change, Fe Fe begins to identify & recognize the unjust systems that enable such damage to occur.

Despite the novel’s subject matter, Fe Fe’s voice retains a lightness and hope that made even the most upsetting scenes ‘bearable’ (that is to say that of course they were still distressing but i was able to keep on reading). While there are a lot of heartbreaking moments, resilience & hope underline Fe Fe’s recollection of her past. We also see her friendship with Precious Brown and the affectionate bond she shares with an older woman in the neighbourhood ground her and provide her with a sense of self-worth & inner strength. Her faith also plays a role in her ‘coming of age’, and even if I am not religious, I found her relationship to her faith touching and depicted with subtelty.

My one ‘but’ has to do with the letter and those diary entries we get towards the end. They struck me as out of place, vaguely ‘off’ in that the voices there sounded not from the ppl they were meant to be by but by Fe Fe herself (or someone who was not in their position but was trying, not so successfully, to put themselves in their shoes). I think they were a tad contrived.

Overall I really loved this. The writing is (deceptively) breezy & lyrical, the topics are hard-hitting, and the characters are complex, their imperfections & flaws making them all the more realistic. I can definitely see this appealing to fans of authors such as Jacqueline Woodson, Danielle Evans, and Patricia Engel, not only because they also tend to explore ‘girlhood’, but their styles share a certain shining quality that makes for very captivating reads.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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