cw: police brutality, racism, sexual exploitation
Early in Toya Wolfe’s debut fiction novel, Last Summer on State Street, Felicia “Fe Fe” Stevens begrudgingly reveals a childhood snapshot from years before - the slow unravelling of the life, friendships and truths she once knew in Chicago’s South Side. At the core of her observation, an older Fe Fe retrospects the realities of being too young to grow up, the harsh realisation that Double Dutch - Wolfe’s not-so-subtle symbol for the simplicity and innocence of childhood - is over forever.
This is a novel set in the sweltering summer heat of State Street in 1999, in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, a real-life housing project now infamous for its role in constricting Chicago’s Black population to a contrastingly small geographical area up until 2007. Wolfe’s deliberately controlled and abrupt prose does little to sugarcoat the blatant voicelessness of State Street’s residents: Fe Fe’s mysterious new friend Tonya is sexually exploited to pay her drug-addicted mother’s debts, Fe Fe’s older brother Meechie becomes a victim of white police brutality and a woman is stomped to death by the neglected children of a gang-fueled matriarch.
As such, Wolfe’s grim and striking depiction of life in the Robert Taylor Homes goes beyond serving as a typical wasteland-esque setting reserved for so-called surplus humanity: it is also Wolfe’s antagonist. State Street is Wolfe’s embodiment of institutionalised racism reminiscent of the racial polarities of the 1990s. It poignantly represents a “monster” where the inhabitants are neglected, entrapped and even slain by a white system.
Wolfe’s written voice does an efficient job of cracking into the perspective of a young girl transitioning from girlhood to womanhood. It’s hard not to empathise with the growing pains of Fe Fe: her friendship with Stacia shifting as they mature and head in different directions, her crushes on classmates (and identifying the feeling of sexual arousal), and her being sheltered from the horrors of the world by her protective mother.
With this in mind, Wolfe’s decision to organise her novel into short, snapshot-like chapters driven by character rather than plot works well to highlight the beauty and emotion behind the mundane experiences of everyday girlhood as surrounded by a predominantly Black community. There is a touching yet subtle moment where Fe Fe arranges for her mother to braid Tonya’s hair with her own. Fe Fe explores her sixth-grade teacher's impact on her restorative power of knowledge and claiming oneself. Wolfe expertly and carefully balances the grim with a feeling of sanctuary.
At times, the heavy exposition feels a tad cumbersome. Personally, I would have preferred more ‘show’ relative to ‘tell’, (make me connect the dots and work for the subtleties!), especially since we are looking through Fe Fe’s childhood memories. Additionally, Meechie’s narrative arc felt under-baked and one-dimensional, a missing puzzle piece in a story shedding light on the imbalances of privilege, power and policy. However, Fe Fe’s ability to carve a new life for herself and the defining relationships she confronts over the passing years are the heartbeats of the novel.
Wolfe writes unapologetically with just the right amount of punch to keep you up at night, reading page after page. It is not a stretch to say that Last Summer on State Street was a somewhat cathartic project for Wolfe, who was driven to write the novel based on her own experiences of Robert Taylor Homes and to shine a spotlight on a traditionally underrepresented perspective in storytelling.
Ultimately, in Last Summer on State Street, Wolfe wonderfully depicts the human condition, its complexities in its most raw state, and how the past and present are constantly interwoven—an excellent debut about hope, resilience, and tragedy a must-read in the #BlackLivesMatter era.