A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich

by Alice Childress
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Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

Alice Childress is a playwright and director as well as a novelist. In 1956, Childress’ play Trouble in Mind received an Obie Award as the year’s best Off-Broadway production. The author’s theatrical experience had an important effect upon A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich. Rather than telling her story through a mixture of narrative and dialogue, Childress relied upon a series of dramatic vignettes to build her novel layer by layer. Each character’s point of view serves to change the reader’s perspective toward Benjie and his addiction. Like the audience of a play, the readers of this novel see the action not through the eyes of a single individual but through the collective experience of a large number of characters.

The graphic realism of A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich surprised many readers when the novel first appeared. Although intended for a teenaged audience, the novel contains obscenities, racial epithets, slang, and explicit references to violence and drug use. Childress’ intention was not to shock her readers but to permit them to see the world through Benjie’s eyes. While Benjie is only thirteen years old, he lives in constant fear of being murdered, robbed, or raped. He has been exposed to suffering more severe than that known by many adults. It should not be surprising, therefore, that Benjie temporarily succumbs to the troubles that surround him. The challenge facing Benjie is how to escape from a life that seems doomed to failure.

The novel’s frequent use of dialect (such as “chile” for “child” and “letrit” for “electricity”) and slang (including “skag” for “heroin,” “cop” for “steal,” and “jive” for “phony”) places the work in the same general tradition as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Like those novels, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich uses nonstandard speech in order to create an atmosphere of realism and to underscore the socioeconomic class of its main characters.

A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich also bears similarities to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye in other ways. Childress herself has noted that A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich was the first novel since The Catcher in the Rye to be banned from high-school libraries in Savannah, Georgia. Moreover, this novel, like its predecessors, is a combination of Bildungsroman (a coming-of-age novel) and social commentary. It presents a flawed central character who quickly gains the readers’ sympathy and, by the end of the novel, their understanding.

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