Posted by the prisoner's wife On 7:35 PM
Years ago I was perusing Borders’ African-American Lit section when it was still fun to look at and I saw the stunning cover of Blues Dancing, Diane McKinny-Whetstone’s third novel. I prescribe to judging a book by its cover, and that book was begging for me to pick it up. I bought it, took it home, and consumed it in two days, wrapping myself in the lives of the characters and the city of brotherly love. From the start of Blues Dancing, I became a fan of McKinny-Whetstone’s work and have kept an eye out for each of her books. About a week ago, I had the pleasure of finishing, her fourth novel (of 5), Leaving Cecil Street, and she did not disappoint.
McKinny-Whetstone begins the novel with a saying that is so Philly that I almost wanted to run out and grab a hoagie and my Roots CD. She begins by saying that, “Cecil Street was feeling some kinda way in 1969.” With that one, authentic phrase I knew I was in for another lush journey through the streets of Philadelphia. One of her major strengths is her ability to paint a picture through melodious prose that speaks to each of your senses. McKinny-Whetstone’s work is a pleasure to read, and Leaving Cecil Street is another gem.
Leaving Cecil Street is a story of community, of relationships, and of love. The story centers around a close nit West Philadelphia block that is in transition. Although the working-class neighborhood is still very well maintained, the world around Cecil Street is in complete upheaval. King and Kennedy have been assassinated, James Brown is proclaiming he is Black and Proud, and the world is struggling to deal with all of the changes. Although the novel is narrated in the third person, one could ague that McKinny-Whetstone allows Cecil Street to speak for itself. We meet its lively residents—some outgoing, some eccentric—hear the corner boys serenade the neighborhood above a night air thick with greens and macaroni and cheese, and we meet Shay and Neet, best friends who are more like sisters than anything else. Just like Cecil Street, Neet and Shay’s relationship is in a state of flux, and just like the neighborhood, they struggle to hold it together.
McKinny-Whetstone has been compared to Toni Morrison because of her ability to bring the reader into the story, not just on a peripheral level, but to draw them in so much so that they are almost apart of the action. And in Leaving Cecil Street, she draws the reader into the complex stories of her characters, causing us to become emotionally invested in each of their lives. At times I found myself shocked, I found myself talking back to characters, and hoping they just get it together. Being involved, emotionally, is a sign of a great book and Leaving Cecil Street is just that. I encourage you to take a trip to Philly and let Cecil Street be your first stop.
Note: I also recommend her latest effort, Trading Dreams At Midnight. Another great read.