Ruth returns to her memories and notes that perhaps because her father hated black men, she fell in love with one. She wasn’t so stupid as to risk her life or the boy’s just to rebel, however, because they would kill a black man for looking at a white woman in those days in Suffolk. She wanted to be in love, and she loved dancing, but no one at her school in Suffolk asked her out because she was Jewish. She longed to be an American and a WASP. Her father never let her have nice clothes. He was cheap, though he was beginning to make money at the store.
She falls in love with a black boy named Peter who “never judged me” (p. 109). Ruth says that her black friends never cared how much money she had: “Blacks have always been peaceful and trusting,” she insists, no matter what they say on TV about black violence. Ruth meets Peter in the store, and he hangs around her, making her laugh. He asks Ruth to go for a walk, and she says yes. He is bold, because he risks his life, and he knows it. Ruth worries that her father would shoot him with his pistol. But she fell in love, and Peter was the first person that paid her any kindness or attention. He picks up Ruth in a car and drives her to his friend’s house in the country. Her life changes, and she is happy for the first time. She doesn’t care what others may think and doesn’t think about getting caught.
Then she becomes pregnant. It was 1936, and she was fifteen and could not tell anyone, or Peter would be killed. She would cry and remember all the black bodies found in the river. Her boyfriend agrees he can’t marry her because it’s against the law. Now they are both afraid. Her watchful mother sees what is going on and casually says she should go visit her grandmother in New York during the summer.
Commentary on Chapter 11: Boys
Ruth goes towards love and kindness like turning to the sun, without thinking of consequences. At this time it is against the law in Virginia for the races to intermarry, but more than that, the Klan is looking for any excuse to take the law into their own hands. In addition, she is afraid of her father’s violence, for if he killed her boyfriend under those circumstances, he would probably not be prosecuted. She is in serious danger now, and her mother saves her by quietly sending her to New York. This is a sort of Romeo and Juliet scenario, but at this time, it wasn’t just the South that had a problem with interracial romance. In most places in the United States, interracial relationships were either outlawed or severely judged as immoral. It is hard to imagine that now, when mainstream movies and TV shows are comfortable with interracial love.
Summary of Chapter 12: Daddy
Hunter Jordan is James’s stepfather and the only Daddy he has ever known. Hunter treats him as his own son. Hunter is a furnace fireman for New York City Housing Authority. He meets Ruth a few months after her first husband dies when she is selling church dinners. He buys one and asks her out. He marries her with her eight children and gives her four more. He is not like the children’s real daddy, who was a preacher, cultured and smart. Hunter is a working and drinking man, down to earth, but kind, and takes them all on. He gets them out of the housing project, buys them the house in Queens and then visits on weekends. His house is in Brooklyn, which he maintains because the family home is chaos. Hunter has Native American blood as well as black. He is rugged and once went to jail for making liquor during Prohibition, but he is a peaceful man.
Ruth did not drink or smoke and didn’t like the children to hang out with Hunter’s friends who drank a lot. Like Ruth, Hunter enforces the notions of church and education for the children. He never talks about race; “To him it was a detail that you stepped over, like a crack in the sidewalk” (p. 125). Hunter had spent his life renovating his brownstone in Brooklyn. When New York City evicted him so they could build a housing project there, he had to move in with Ruth and the children, making a place for himself in the basement, but “it was like they ripped out half his arteries” (p. 125). Within three years he has a stroke. He tells James as the oldest boy at home that he will have to look after the family, but when Hunter dies, Ruth wails, and James becomes a street bum.
Commentary on Chapter 12: Daddy
Ruth has been more than fortunate to find two black men she could love. Hunter supports Ruth and the family and is a good daddy. He does not help James with his racial questions, because Hunter comes from an older generation where they don’t speak of such things, though he is a mixed blood himself. We sense the emotional stability Hunter brings to the family, but he is not the role model that Dennis was. Ruth is raising the children to be educated professionals, and Hunter is of the working class. He backs up her notion of church and education, however, as the prime tools for escaping poverty. He does not talk to James or the other children a lot like Ruth does, but his quiet strength holds up the family, and when he dies, both James and Ruth fall apart. James remembers his stepfather as epitomizing “old-time cool: suave, handsome black men who worked hard, drank hard, dressed well, liked fine women and new money” (p. 121). As much as James loves Hunter, this is not his role model that can lead him in his own direction.
Summary of Chapter 13: New York
Ruth continues her narrative. Though her mother did not say anything to her about it, Ruth is sure she knew she was pregnant and in trouble. Ruth had dropped her bracelet in the alley during a rendezvous with Peter, and her mother quietly placed it in front of her later. All of Hudis’s family are in New York, and Ruth was used to visiting them in the summer. It was natural for her mother to suggest she go there. Her sisters, Ruth’s aunts, did not bother much with Hudis, their handicapped sister. Except for Hudis’s mother, Bubeh (Grandmother), all of Hudis’s sisters are rather cold to Ruth and her branch of the family whom they regard as poor relations. They are embarrassed by the “greenhorns,” or un-Americanized sister who can’t speak English and her poor Orthodox rabbi husband.
New York is exciting to the young Ruth, and she likes the diversity and rush. She “got with the program” as soon as she could, she says (p. 130). She tells about her aunts and cousins who are rich and pampered. They have maids and clothes and chocolate creams, but there is no love, no closeness. Bubeh is warm and funny though she does not speak English. She takes Rachel on her first trolley ride and introduces her to her immigrant friends who speak Yiddish.
Aunt Betsy (Betts) is the youngest and beautiful sister of Hudis. She cares for Bubeh, who has diabetes. Betts is the one who can see something is wrong with “Rachel” when she comes to New York in the summer of 1936. Rachel breaks down and tells her the truth. Betts makes some phone calls and takes Rachel to a Jewish doctor in Manhattan who gives her an abortion. Betts tells her, “Don’t let it happen again” (p. 135).
Commentary on Chapter 13: New York
Though Hudis’s family is rather cold, they take care of their own as Ruth explains. Betts does not preach, but she covers for her niece’s mistake. Abortion was illegal at this time, but there were doctors willing to perform it, especially for the wealthy with contacts and money. Rachel (Ruth) is grateful for a second chance, for if she had had a black illegitimate baby at this time without her family’s support, it would have led her into danger and extreme hardship. Nevertheless, she does let it happen again, because she is attracted to the warmth of black people, who seem to have some qualities she is missing in her life.
Summary of Chapter 14: Chicken Man
James returns to the moment of Hunter’s death when he is fourteen years old. For months, his mother is “staggering through the motions of life” (p. 137). She can’t drive Hunter’s gold Pontiac, so she rides a bicycle and takes up the piano. James begins to flunk out of school. He had been a good student, but now he starts his “own process of running” (p. 138), so he won’t have to feel his mother’s despair or his own. He quits church and starts smoking cigarettes and marijuana, joining a soul band called Black Ice. The band has a following of girls. He shoplifts and steals with his new friends, almost getting caught by the police. His mother beats him, trying to shake him out of his behavior, but nothing works. His stepfather told him to take care of the family, but he abandons the family. His mother struggles with bills, and James steals purses from old women. He says, “I was numb” (p. 141). He feels the world is unjust, and he is getting back at it.
Finally, Ruth sends James to stay with Jack (Jaqueline) during the summers in Louisville, Kentucky. Jack is an older stepsister and is married to Big Richard. She gives James the freedom to be on the street and to run around with her husband. Richard works at a tobacco plant but spends time on “the Corner” with other workingmen. This was James’s “true education” (p. 144). The men are southern black working men, drunks, and con artists. The men have their own code and teach it to James. Chief among them was the street philosopher, Chicken Man, who was an old wino, but “like an angel” (p. 145) he watches over James. James feels he can hide on the Corner, but he starts into a life of petty crime again. Chicken Man warns him to lay off this life and get back in school. He challenges the boy to think about what he really wants.
Commentary on Chapter 14: Chicken Man
When James tells Chicken Man he is smart, Chicken Man replies, “’Everybody on this Corner is smart. You ain’t no smarter than anybody here” (p. 150). He warns James he is going to go to jail if he keeps robbing and getting mixed up with thieves. James witnesses feuds with guns on the Corner. Chicken Man teaches him the rules: “Don’t never get between a man and his woman” and “don’t have no arguments with no woman” (pp. 151-152). As if to illustrate his own point, Chicken Man does have an argument with a woman, who stabs him with a knife, and he dies.
James feels abandoned when his stepfather dies. His mother is sunk in suffering, and he can’t help her, and she can’t help him. He tries to be part of a band that plays Kool and Gang songs. Then he tries being part of a street gang, but he admits he can’t feel anything. Though he has been raised in the church, he does not reflect on his crime when he mugs old women. The suppressed anguish and anger of his whole young life comes rushing up, and he acts on it. Like his mother at the same age, he rebels and gets into trouble. Like Ruth, he also seems to have some luck because it isn’t a permanent descent. He manages to escape being caught and sent to jail, and in his own time, returns to a better path in life. He gives Chicken Man and the men on the Corner credit for showing him the path he really does not want to follow. He is allowed to taste it and then move on without harm.
Summary of Chapter 15: Graduation
Ruth continues her story. After the abortion, she writes to her father that she will go to high school in New York. She sleeps on her grandmother’s couch and enrolls in Girls Commercial High School. This is her junior year, and the school work is harder than she is used to. The school is far ahead of Suffolk High School. Afraid she won’t graduate on time, she returns to Suffolk High for her senior year. She tells her old boyfriend Peter she can’t see him anymore. He says he still loves her.
Ruth overhears two young black women in the store talking about Peter. He has to get married because he got a black girl pregnant. Ruth is so angry she marches right into the black section of town to Peter’s house in daylight and makes him talk to her about it. He admits it is true. Ruth is heartbroken, because she still loves him. She is certain she would have married him if it had been possible. She knows she has to leave Suffolk to live her own life now and only waits to graduate. She worries about her mother, since her mother does not speak English, and Ruth has always translated for her and helped her.
When her mother has fainting spells, Fishel hires a black woman to care for his wife. Their marriage is crumbling, and Ruth can’t wait to get away from home. Frances begs Ruth to go through the graduation ceremony, and Fishel reluctantly pays for her cap and gown. The ceremony is held in the Protestant church, and Ruth is feeling rebellious. As a Jew, she shouldn’t enter the church, but it is important to her to be like everyone else. At the last moment her training as a Jew catches up to her, and she is not able to go into the church. She walks home sobbing and the next day takes the bus to New York City.
Commentary on Chapter 15: Graduation
This is an interesting episode because it shows that one’s early training is not so easily thrown out or forgotten. Ruth begins to shake and sweat as she approaches the Protestant church. It is against her religion to enter another church, and whether or not she agrees with this rule, it is part of her conscious or unconscious mind. When Ruth becomes a Christian, and her family casts her out, she “dies” to the Jewish past and goes forward, never speaking of her origins to her family. Nevertheless, James notes later that her Jewish traits show themselves in her personality, and in the way she cares for her family. For fifty years, she buries the Jewish part of her, until James insists that it be resurrected in the memoir. This turns out to be good for her as well as the children. She was the daughter of a rabbi, and somehow that background is only suppressed, never completely erased.
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