Sweet Town by Toni Cade Bambara, 1959
The magic trick:
Creating a nostalgic, magical world of childhood
No easy task to recreate the romance of youth. There is a strange, ungraspable nostalgia over the whole thing. So how do you bring that to life in a short story? Well, I’ve been writing this blog for five years, and I still have no idea. It’s magic, right?
Stuart Dybek is probably my favorite purveyor of that misty nostalgia.
Toni Cade Bambara is pretty dang good, too.
Here, in “Sweet Town,” she uses cloudy language to create that air of mystery surrounding those incredibly powerful, formative days of being a teenager. What the heck is cloudy language? Well, I’m not sure. I’m making stuff up as I go here. But it’s my best attempt to describe the way the narrator speaks in a mix of slang, overly proper wording, and ideas that seem to mean more to the characters interacting than they could to the reader. It’s as if the characters are communicating through secret code.
It’s great stuff. The reader can follow along enough to get a sense of confidence, naiveté, sex, young love, fantasy, adventure, and a certain endearing brashness. But there remains a cloud of mystery over all of it, because we don’t directly know what is happening – the same way the kids themselves in the story don’t know how valuable this time spent in what she calls the “sweet time of my betrayed youth” will be when they grow up.
And that’s quite a trick on Bambara’s part.
“Dear Mother” – I wrote one day on her bathroom mirror with a candle sliver – “please forgive my absence and my decay and overlook the freckled dignity and pockmarked integrity plaguing me this season.”
I used to come on even wilder sometimes and write her mad cryptic notes on the kitchen sink with charred matches. Anything for a bit, we so seldom saw each other. I even sometimes wrote her a note on paper. And then one day, having romped my soul through the spectrum of sunny colors, I dashed up to her apartment to escape the heat and found a letter from her which eternally elated my heart to the point of bursture and generally endeared her to me forever. Written on the kitchen table in cake frosting was the message, “My dear, mad, perverse young girl, kindly take care and paint the fire escape in your leisure . . .” All the I’s were dotted with marmalade, the t’s were crossed with orange rind.
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