SPSOP by J. California Cooper
So I’ve added another notch to my bookshelf. Some People, Some Other Place is complete and it’s time for the review. I’ve also changed my mind about reading Dust Tracks on the Road…well, I guess I decided to postpone that read until…let’s just say later. Based on my recent purchases, I figured The Known World might be a better follow-up. Of course I had to do my usual Amazon ‘lowest rating first‘ check. Sometimes there is a little truth within all the hate (sometimes). As you read below, watch out for the spoilers!
“My fifth grade teacher, who has since become one of my friends, one day said, ‘Instead of calling and asking me for advice, try reading J. California Cooper.'” – Halle Berry
J. California Cooper’s Bio: Cooper first found acclaim as a playwright. The author of seventeen plays, she was named Black Playwright of the Year in 1978. It was through her work in the theater that she caught the attention of acclaimed poet and novelist Alice Walker. Encouraged by Walker to turn her popular storytelling skills to fiction, Cooper wrote her first collection of short stories, A Piece of Mine, in 1984. Called “rich in wisdom and insight” and “a book that’s worth reading,” A Piece of Mine introduced Cooper’s trademark style: her intimate and energetic narration, sympathetic yet sometimes troubled characters, and the profound moral messages that underlie seemingly simple stories. Two more story collections followed on the heels of A Piece of Mine. In 1986 came Homemade Love, winner of an American Book Award, and, in 1987, Some Soul to Keep.
Book: Some People, Some Other Place by J. California Cooper
Publisher: Doubleday 2004
Opening Lines: I have not been born…yet. I am not an angel. Nor am I in Heaven. I am some other place. I am going to be born as a human being on Earth. It has taken me a long time to decide to be born.
Publisher’s Description: Some People, Some Other Place is Cooper’s biggest, most far-reaching novel to date. A multi-generational tale, it is set in a town called “Place,” on a street named “Dream Street.” In the words of the novel’s narrator, “the block surely had about it a feeling of long accumulation of history, of life, of many lives intertwined.” As she chronicles the interlocking lives of the residents of Dream Street, Cooper places the stories of the individuals and their families within the wider context of America’s social and economic history. We meet the narrator’s great grandparents, who left the poverty of the Deep South in 1895 and made their way to a farm in Oklahoma; her grandparents, who continued the northward journey with their eyes on the promised jobs of the industrial Midwest but were forced to settle without reaching their goal; and her mother, who finishes the journey and discovers that life at 903 Dream Street carries new burdens as well as rewards. The neighbors on the block are people of all colors, all striving to overcome personal troubles and disappointments, and all holding fast to their dreams of a better life.
Reason book was selected: Again, Cooper is one of my older sister’s favorite authors. Since I’ve already read The Wake of the Wind, I felt like I knew what to expect from another selection by Cooper. In other words, I assumed I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Cover art: Page 7 notes, “the houses are numbered from 902 through 907 Dream Street.” But what do we see on the mailbox featured on this book cover? The number 1517. I guess that home and mailbox are way down the street. I don’t know how the car in the picture relates, since the only time that I can recall a car pulling over to the side of the road (as a major plot element) didn’t involve Dream Street. Overall, the cover could have been better. What do I imagine instead? I have no suggestions.
The Good: I sat here for a moment trying to think about the things that pleased me about this book. Strangely, the first thought that occured was the names Cooper selected for her characters. Names like EulaLee, Eula Too, Earle Mae, Madame Elizabeth, Tobe (the cat)–as in ‘To be or not to be,’ and Lona Rich Green, to name a few. Although the description mentions that this book is a multi-generational tale, I disagree.
The novel begins in 1895 as we witness Eula, the unborn narrator’s great-grandmother, striving to make it toward Chicago. Although the goal is not successfully met, one of her many children, EulaLee desires the same thing. Thus, she too attempts the trip to Chicago with her own husband and children. Again, failure. Instead EulaLee births baby after baby, as her husband sweats and bleeds to support his every growing family. Because there are so many mouths to feed (and the babies never end) EulaLee’s family lives in poverty. After the birth of one girl child, EulaLee decides that “I don’t want no Eula Three” and names the child Eula Too after herself and her mother. In my opinion, on page 20 is where this multi-generational tale ends, but there are a few other characters who share similar familial tales later on down the line.
Eula Too is her mother’s helper. As EulaLee continues to give birth to child after child, Eula Too is the one girl child who is always there to help. Since her mother has usually either just given birth or pregnant, she relies on her daughter to do everything. But one day Eula Too decides that she wants more out of life than being poor. She desires more than simply being a pseudo mother/housewife. With that in mind, she allows a white man to feel her up for money–he never penetrates her, but simply rubs everything outside her ratty panties…I’m not making this up…the panties were ratty. What would your panties be like if you only had one pair? And for all we know she may have shared those with her sisters. Okay. Now I’m kidding. Of course, the pervert white man didn’t care about ratty panties. Most perverts don’t. Over time, Eula Too saved the $3 to $5 she earned from letting the white man feel her up.
Two years after her 14th child, EulaLee announces that she is once again pregnant. Well, Eula Too can’t take living in a 24/7 daycare center any more, decides she has enough money saved to leave, and arranges for the pervert to take her. Of course, perverts sometimes have pervert friends and Eula Too ends up being raped and dumped somewhere outside of Chicago. Luckily, a seemingly good-natured white woman picks her up and carries her back to her mansion.
In a story frame fashion that Cooper utilizes throughout the book, we learn about Madame Elizabeth’s, the white woman who rescuses Eula Too, background. I’ll spare you the details, but to make a long story short, she’s a beautiful woman who lands a sugar daddy. Needing a way to maintain her lavish lifestyle, Madame allows other high-scale/priced women to live in her mansion…shall we call them escorts? But Madame’s home is not a whorehouse. Her few clients are consistent and she needs no others, charging $10,000 (in 1940 something) for an evening with one of the girls. At this point, I’ve only described up until about page 50!
There are so many stories that are told in this novel. I know you all wouldn’t read it all if I typed it. This novel is about several well-developed characters, their relationships with their families, and the experiences that bring them to and keep them on Dream Street. I didn’t mean to write out the above summary, and now that I think about it, I didn’t even tell you all about Lona Rich Green or what happens to EulaLee. My bad.
The Bad: We soon discover that Madame Elizabeth isn’t this generous, caring individual we thought her to be in the beginning. She does a few foul things that really make you consider how many selfish, ingenuine white folks lived during that time (not like today is any different). Then Cooper reminds us that people are people and their actions have nothing to do with color. Regardless, Madame and Jewel (Eula Too’s first daughter) are the hated characters in this novel.
The Ugly: As I read in the silence of my home (with my crazy cat doing her crazy cat things), some parts scared me. No, I’m serious. Imagine getting into a story and discovering more about the characters, then all of a sudden you read something like “Satan has accomplished his purposes well.” I would always have to pause and look around my room for a second, like I expected to see him standing right there in front of me.
Were these messages slipped into this book for a reason? Could the story not have been told without parts like “Unfortunately, being where she was, Satan was now interested in her. He owned almost everyone else living there and all the visitors to the ladies. Sometimes, when he hears about ‘blessings,’ he just laughs and laughs. He is a master at disguising life.” Um…I live alone (don’t forget the cat though) and in the middle of my reading I don’t want mentions of Satan. Maybe that’s just me.
Favorite Part: Lona Rich Green is a thief with a troubled past. Lucky for her, she marries a man who truly believes he loves and wants to share a life with her. They marry and have two babies. Lazy Lona believes that being a mother/wife are good enough reasons to sit around all day and do nothing. Her husband Robert, on the other hand, overworks himself to support his family. As seen on page 245, Robert meets his end doing so:
One day when Prince was nine and Homer was eight years old, Robert came home from work, another backbreaking day behind him. Lona was now cooking the evening meals with MaMary’s help. Robert sat down to rest a minute before going to take a shower. When he stood up he let out a tired heavy breath, then he frowned and dropped dead of a first, and final, heart attack.
The children hollered and screamed, crying. MaMary held her own heart as she knelt to look after her son. Lona ran to him to try to shake him away. He didn’t wake up. He was dead of a heavy heart and a sad, sad life.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. To be honest, 368 pages just wasn’t enough. I really wished this story was a multi-generational tale so that I could learn about the rest of the family of Eulas through to present-day–hell the future even.