Last of his “City of Fire” series, Kevin Baker’s conflagration this time is the Harlem riots of 1943. His double protagonists are opposites in every way, including one fictional (Jonah Dove, grandson of a central character in Paradise Alley) and the other, a speculation on the formative years of Malcolm X.
When Jonah Dove, a fair-skinned minister of a black Harlem church, is harassed by some drunken bigots on a train, sandwich seller Malcolm Little performs a tour-de-force rescue. Soon both protagonists enter the novel’s third gem of characterization – Harlem itself. Harlem’s a community alive with music, culture, and work, but also poverty, rationing, and both military and police on streets teeming with life, hostility, and racism. Jonah lives on the Strivers Row of the title, an elite community that he insists is “better than any upper-class white neighborhood, because it’s not segregated by class,” but even he begins to compare his Harlem to a self-made Warsaw ghetto.
Strivers Row brims with the life and contradictions of its characters and setting. The strong narrative drive makes room for the mystical, transcendent and visceral, making a rich and compelling reading experience. Highly recommended.