Union Street is composed of seven stories about significant events in the lives of seven women. There is no continuity of plot at surface level and no single protagonist. The stories are complete in themselves and could have been published separately. Except for the fact that all the women live on Union Street and are neighbors, there is no apparent special relationship among them, though different neighbors do appear in completely natural ways in each of the stories. In some ways, it seems as though the stories fit together as a story cycle like James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), and a reader beginning Union Street has no way of knowing the direction the volume will take until slowly, by accumulation of detail, the narratives fuse to become a novel with a protagonist whose conflict is defined by events spaced throughout a lifetime and beyond.
The seven women embody seven stages in the passage of life. The stages are not fixed but are alternatives, though the alternatives are limited by conditions possible in and defined by Union Street. At the beginning of the novel, this symbolic structure is not apparent: The women seem to represent not all women but only women confined to Union Street. The surprising resolution, however, broadens the scope of the novel in such a way that Alice Bell comes to represent all women, and her passing of the torch to Kelley Brown becomes an affirmation of life relating to all women regardless of their circumstances.
Union Street is a wasteland of rotting houses, of families subjugated by poverty, men made ill by the coal mines that both sustain and kill them, women made old by continual childbearing and the abuse of their men, and children left to fend for themselves at an early age, losing their innocence sometimes even before puberty. There are no villains here—there are only people who accept their circumstances and learn to live with them, and those who fail to achieve such acceptance, in one way or another destroying themselves and their families. In 1973, the year in which the novel is set, conditions are made worse by the coal miners’ strike. Out of work, the men abuse their wives; the women, basic caretakers, have to cope increasingly with drunken husbands, abusive husbands, absent husbands, and dying husbands.
The section on eleven-year-old Kelley Brown that opens the novel is in many ways the key to all that develops. Kelley and her sister, Linda, who is several years older and already dating, are the only children of Mrs. Brown. Their father left home many years before, and their mother has sought relationships with other men in a long series. Though she works all day, Mrs. Brown still stays out half the night drinking in pubs with her latest live-in. Thus, Kelley has had to learn to fend for herself and has adopted a surly, aggressive manner in her own home, but she is liked by the people in the neighborhood and still clearly seeks and needs her mother’s love and affection. All about Kelley are evidences of her approaching puberty and what it will mean, from the bloodied accoutrements of womanhood to the near-naked appearance of her sister in front of her mother’s lover. Kelley rejects it all: “No, she didn’t want to get like that.”
At the same time that she consciously rejects a sexual identity, however, subconsciously she seems to want to hasten the process. She courts danger and seems almost to summon “The Man” who rapes her. An image of “The Man” appears many times during the night that Kelley stays away from home to go alone to the park and the fair. She seems to have a premonition of what will happen to her and, moreover, determined to keep herself in danger. She sends her friend home and, after leaving the first man she encounters, who does her no harm, she continually looks for the figure of “The Man” who will bring her to knowledge. After the attack, she hangs on to him, forcing him to offer her food; in the restaurant, she watches him break down and cry, his image all around her reflecting itself in mirror tiles.
It is three weeks before she breaks down, screaming, and tells her mother what has occurred. Her mother, shocked for a moment at least into revealing the love for her daughter that she has hidden, identifies “The Man” symbolically with her husband, long gone. The identification is valid. Kelley has been rehearsing in her mind the one vivid memory she has of her father when she looks up to find the first man who approached her in the park, thus placing father and man in immediate and significant proximity.
Kelley’s feelings of revulsion, not only for what happened to her in the park but also for the whole cycle of sex and poverty and dirt, lead her to enter a large Victorian house whose occupants are out for the day. There she finds evidence of her approaching sexuality all around in waste materials in bath and bedrooms. In the house, she uses a manicure scissors to cut off her hair to make herself ugly. Later, at school, she destroys furniture and defecates, in her fury writing on the blackboard the worst words she knows to describe fornication and defecation.
What a reader does not know until the novel is completed is that Kelley’s chapter introduces every important character in the book, from Iris King, the only woman Mrs. Brown can call upon for help, to Sharon Scaife, daughter of...
(The entire section is 2224 words.)