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A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich by Alice Childress is the story of a thirteen-year-old boy who becomes addicted to drugs (Heroin.) It is written like a documentary with twenty-three characters telling their part of the story. While the story revolves around Benjy, each chapter is an insight into the lives of the characters narrating that portion of the novel. In many ways, helping Benjy is a hopeless task for these characters. As the story begins, many of them have begun to turn away and avoid him. Only one character remains stalwart in trying to help Benjy- his mother's boyfriend, Butler.
The title of the book comes from Benjy, a young African American boy living in Harlem. He does not fully recognize the extent of his addiction. He feels that he is in control despite what most people say in the book. He is isolated and critical of the attitudes of the people who want to help him. The story's title is in reference to what Benjy says about heroes. To him they are nothing more than a sandwich.
If you are not from New York City, this may be confusing. Long sandwiches with deli meat, lettuce, tomato, and mayo are called different things around the United States. (Grinder, Wedge, Hoagie, Po'boy, Spuckie, Blimpie, Torpedo, Spiedie, Gondola, Poor boy, Zeppelin, Sarnie, Italian, Bomber, or Sub as in Subway sandwiches the franchise.) In New York, these sandwiches are called heroes. Because Benjy is from Harlem, he would know long sandwiches by this name.
Childress uses the homonym to show the dissolution of Benjy and his world. To him the idea of someone coming to save him or his family is ridiculous. The only heroes he knows about are sold at the local deli. This statement by Benjy, during his narrative, is very myopic. Through the narrations in the other chapters, the reader sees the concern and worry that his friends and family have for him. It shows how Benjy is caged in by his addiction and how the drug narrows his perceptions.
The reference of heroes is a reoccurring theme in the book. Childress looks at heroes from the perspective of Benjy's jadedness, Nigeria Greene's activism, the well-meaning advice of the social worker, the enthusiasm and concern from his two teachers, the history of the grandmother, and the efforts of the Mother's boyfriend, Butler even when Benjy steals from him. The allusion to Butler being a hero, under Benjy's nose, is made concrete when Butler physically stops Benjy from falling off the roof and saves his life. Butler’s efforts through his support and concern are the counter to the title of the novel. He proves that there are heroes in the world outside of sandwich shops.
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