Review: In a 1950s Fillmore neighborhood, a black family achieves musical stardom

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton is the author of “On the Roof”. Photo: Smeeta Mahanti

In some families, there is nothing stronger than a mother’s bond with her daughter. All those hopes and desires. All this need guidance and protection. All that unconditional love poured out. But what happens when a mother’s well-meaning aspirations for her offspring clash with her daughter’s ever-changing view of herself?

In the seminal piece of a third novel by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, “On the Roof”, this theme is explored with compassion, lucid perception and uncompromising execution. And when placed in the context of racial segregation and prejudice in mid-century America, the results are shocking.

Set against the backdrop of the Fillmore, a black neighborhood in gentrified 1950s San Francisco, where Sam Cooke and Sarah Vaughan grace the stages of Bop City and other local music venues, “On the Rooftop” shines the spotlight on the a family’s quest for musical stardom.

At its center is Vivian, the stalwart matriarch — ‘more lioness than woman’ — who turned her back on her Southern roots to move with her future husband to Louisiana’s Bay Area 25 years earlier, after the Ku Klux Klan murdered his father. Since her husband’s untimely death from a heart attack, Vivian has been aiming to get her three daughters’ singing act, The Salutes, signed by a deep-pocketed talent manager so they no longer have to. to live “a finger snap away from poverty.”

On the Roof by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton. Photo: HarperCollins

But as Sexton slowly reveals over the course of this expertly paced novel, Vivian’s daily rehearsals with Ruth, Esther and Chloe atop their building and the girls’ weekly sold-out concerts at the Champagne Supper Club might not be enough to make the long held dream a reality.

As she did in her previous books – National Book Award shortlisted ‘A Kind of Freedom’ and the equally stunning second novel ‘The Revisioners’, Sexton makes the smart choice to tell the story from multiple angles. , each with their own story. proven lesson to pass on.

In addition to the story of Vivian, whose struggle-laden arc takes her from aggrieved widow to myopic stage mother to exhausted matron facing the prospect of a new love (hint: Vivian’s belated romance with the very sought-after preacher Thomas, though totally predictable, is among the greatest in literature), 24-year-old Ruth’s trajectory ago. Her story jumps from its place at the center of salutes to marriage to early motherhood. A telling quote here: “There was waking and feeding and silence and rocking and washing and folding. … There was a fist in his chest that was tightening during the day, and Ruth was waiting for him to relieve his pressure.

Esther’s story, filled with fiery outbursts over her mother’s stranglehold control and episodes of “feeling worse than invisible” next to her talented older sister, is the most classic, though no less compelling. , three. Through Esther’s decision to give up her singing career in order to use her voice to protest the redevelopment of the Fillmore and elsewhere, we see firsthand the fundamental need for empowered black female voices in racial, class, and gender.

But it’s 20-year-old Chloe’s coming-of-age transition from naïve ingenue to superstar that deserves a standing ovation. Sexton’s deft handling of Chloe’s secret courtship with a white boy named James – and his slow revelation of James’s connection to the changes taking place in the Fillmore – not only demonstrate how far we’ve come in terms of racial politics since the 1950s, but the distance we still have to go.

“On the Roof” is a powerful novel that reflects both how high we can fly and how fast we can be knocked down. But Sexton’s message is clear: “Oh, yes, change (blows) like the wind,” she wrote. The best we can do is put our arms up, steer when we can, and get the most out of the ride.

on the roof
By Margaret Wilkerson-Sexton
(Ecco; 304 pages; $28.99)

A Great Good Place for Books features Margaret Wilkerson Sexton in conversation with Jasmine Guillory: In person. 7 p.m. Sept. 9 Free. Mandatory masks. Montclair Presbyterian Church, 5701 Thornhill Drive, Oakland. www.ggpbooks.com/event

Book Passage features Margaret Wilkerson Sexton in conversation with RO Kwon: In person. 4 p.m. Sept. 18 Free. 51 Tamal Vista Boulevard, Corte Madera. 415-927-0960. www.bookpassage.com

Litquake and KQED feature Margaret Wilkerson Sexton in conversation with Mina Kim: In person. 7 p.m. on October 7. $18. KQED Commons, 2601 Mariposa St., SF www.kqed.org/events