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Occasionally America is forced to confront its hardwired “isms” as the mainstream culture expands to include the more marginalized groups. Such cultural shifts are always painful, memorable, and worth probing long after the events themselves have been consigned to history. Such moments change those who pass through them, like Alice’s looking glass; the world is no longer the way it was, the way it was supposed to be, the way it ever will be again. And the outrage against change spills into people in previously unimagined and probably unimaginable ways. Such is the world of South Boston, 1974, a white neighborhood fighting change that came in the shape of school buses carrying African American children from Roxbury. It was a violent, turbulent period, from which the city and its people emerged fundamentally changed.
Such is the backdrop for Stephanie Grant’s latest novel, Map of Ireland. In the year her novel is set, Grant was an adolescent growing up in a Boston suburb (but don’t assume the book is autobiographical; it’s not) who was able to draw on an intimate knowledge of those times. Today, she says that pivotal period–the racism and violence that surrounded desegregation–came to shape her own view of Boston. In this new novel, she tackles some of those big questions about racism and politics, feminism and society.
It’s an ambitious setting for a classic coming-of-age story, told from the point of view of Ann Ahern, a plucky high schooler whose freckled face is described as a “map of Ireland.” The cover blurbs describe Ann as “part Huck Finn and part Holden Caulfield.” Well, maybe, although she seems wholly her own character. Ann likes playing with fire, both literally and figuratively–whether setting fire to unsent love letters in her mother’s bathroom, or falling hard for her exotic French teacher who is actually a militant who vanishes into the underground, or coming out as a young lesbian with her lover, who is African American. As Ann grapples with her own internalized racism and her budding sexuality, the book ploughs treacherous emotional waters: “I’d never been in a Black house before. It made me anxious, agitated. I looked around. Full of dread. Everything was different now…In ninth grade, when I got in trouble for tonguing Laura Miskinis in the ear, the headmaster had called me a pervert. I knew then, he had the wrong word. Perverse means twisted. What I’d done was simple, straightforward: a tongue, an ear, a current of feeling. What I was doing now in Mademoiselle Eugenie’s house, was perverse. Sneaking around. A lone White in a Black house. Trespassing.” It’s difficult today to understand how different the world was in 1974, how far we’ve evolved–and in some ways haven’t evolved at all. Yet Grant focuses sharply on social issues of the time, drawing on her own experiences and extensive research, to take us back–undeniably the book’s great strength, but also its weakness, especially when the issue overshadows the character.
The writing is clear, sharp and beautifully detailed, but Grant’s true gift is her uncanny ability to climb inside the skin of a character: “…I remembered that in basketball, you could play injured–you could run up and down the court on a twisted knee or ankle–if you told yourself it didn’t hurt. If you held the idea of yourself, uninjured, carefully in your head. So I did that.” Ann, a badly injured baby dyke, catapults from one bad choice to the next, half driven by hormones and half by plain bad judgment and circumstances. She is an endearing character, nonetheless, and fearless in a way many young women simply were not in 1974. It would be interesting to find out where she is now.
Map of Ireland
Scribner / $22
Hardcover, 193 pp