Connie Rose Porter’s first novel, All-Bright Court, is a story of disillusionments and defeated dreams, but it is also a revelation of human endurance, which, along with humor, a sense of magic, compassion, and love, enable at least some of its characters to transcend their desperate lives. The book is written in a series of chapters, each of which tells a separate story. These incidents are unified by the fact that they all occur in a single community, by their recurring characters, and by the reiteration of pattern and theme.
The setting of the novel is All-Bright Court, an optimistically named tenement in the steel town of Lackawanna, located in upstate New York. All-Bright Court is made up of cinder block houses built during World War I as temporary quarters for white workers in the steel mills. In the 1950’s, when the steel company at last built prefabricated houses for the white workers to buy, they painted the deteriorating concrete block houses in a rainbow of colors, named the area All-Bright Court, and moved in black workers from the South, who naïvely took the appearance for the reality. There Porter’s characters live, learning to take shelter from the iron dust that falls upon them daily, but unable to shield themselves from the exploitation and the economic oppression that destroys the lives of blacks and whites alike.
Many of the people in All-Bright Court are like Samuel Taylor, a young black man from Mississippi, whose dreams of a bright future are based on his being able to sit at the same counter with whites and having a modern kitchen and indoor plumbing in his rented house. The reality Samuel must face every day, however, is the steel mill, where men are sacrificed to profit. If they are not killed in accidents resulting from outdated equipment, they die from lung diseases. If they strike, they and their families go hungry, and even the victories they occasionally win are too often mere compromises with their exploiters that leave the workers little better off than they were before.
In this environment, dreams die and lives are tragically wasted. For example, the “old man’s son,” Isaac, is obviously bright. Before he is two years old, he is talking in complete sentences. That display of intelligence alone is enough to cause him to be branded as “crazy” by the neighborhood. Then, because he is high-strung and easily frustrated, Isaac is put in a vocational school, where he is desperately bored, instead of in a school where his writing talent could be developed. Before long, Isaac turns to drugs and crime, and when last mentioned, he has been arrested for robbery.
The brief life of the “hungry boy,” Dennis, is as tragic as that of Isaac. Porter first describes Dennis lying in a field, stuffing stolen bologna into his mouth. Earlier, the Taylors had tried to help him. When Dennis became a playmate of the Taylors’ oldest child, Michael, or “Mikey,” Mary Kate Taylor would take in the child and feed him. She had learned that Dennis’ mother was an alcoholic and that Dennis dreaded going home to their empty house, where there was no food and often no electricity. One night, Mary Kate took Dennis in, bathed him, washed his urine-scented clothes, and put him to bed. His mother took offense at anyone’s cleaning up her son, however, and, understandably angry, Sam ordered his family to leave Dennis alone. Dennis subsequently steals food and lives in a field, totally alone. Eventually, he is killed by a stray bullet during the riots that follow Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death.
Unlike Dennis’ mother, Samuel and Mary Kate Taylor have not given up. Both of them work hard. Mary Kate keeps her house and her children spotless. The Taylors have strict rules for their children, but they surround them with love. In every way they can, Sam and Mary Kate are preparing them to take advantage of new opportunities, which they believe will come to blacks as a result of the Civil Rights movement. As it happens, Mikey does indeed benefit from changing times. As part of a new program for especially intelligent young blacks, he is sent on a scholarship to a white private school. Certainly, Mikey benefits from the superior education he receives there. It is difficult to be a token black, however, and although Mikey does manage the difficult task of moving between the two worlds, even speaking two languages, as a result of his good fortune he loses his sense of purpose and his sense of identity. Where Sam had encouraged his children to have dreams and fulfill them, Mikey wishes only to run away from his life at All-Bright Court, not to move toward the fulfillment of a goal. At the end of the book, Mikey will not even consider going to a black college. He is bound for the Ivy League and, as his father realizes, for what will be a white man’s kind of life in a white man’s world. Ironically, though Mikey—unlike Isaac and Dennis—will be considered successful, he, too, will, in a sense be lost, because he will be alienated from his real self and from his traditions.
There is a fine balance in Porter’s book between the public world and the private world. On one hand, she writes about the effect of historical events on the people of All-Bright Court. For example, one of the recurring discussions in the book is the question of strikes. The...
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