I expected to like No Crystal Stair quite a bit more than I actually did. It’s a “documentary novel” about Lewis Michaux, a Harlem bookseller whose store was the center of Black intellectual life during the Civil Rights movement. Malcolm X hangs out in his bookstore; Nikki Giovanni gives readings. The store was obviously a labor of love for Michaux, but it also gave him a direction in life: social and political activism. He sounds like a real character, though I think the book is too earnest and sober to entirely do him or any of the other characters justice.
I expected to like this book for three reasons. First, it was well-reviewed, discussed as a Printz or Newbery contender, and awarded a Coretta Scott King Honor. Second, it tells a lesser-known story about twentieth-century African-American history, a story that focuses on two of my own great loves–bookstores and reading. And third, it’s innovative in its genre and structure. I love the idea of a “documentary novel” that blends fiction with non-fiction and includes artifacts from a real life.
But this book really did not work for me. At the sentence-level, the writing was pedestrian, bland, almost textbook-y at times. The many different characters all have the same voice. Because the innovative structure of the novel juxtaposes dozens of different characters speaking in their own words, it’s a serious problem when they all sound exactly the same–and like they’re speaking in textbook prose. Even though the plot should be stirring and exciting (Michaux engages in a life of petty crime until he discovers reading and decides to open a bookstore in Harlem to give his African-American community access to books about their history and culture), there is a plodding quality of “And then this happened, and then this happened” that dulls the narrative. I probably wouldn’t even excuse that in a biography anymore (Sy Montgomery’s biography of Temple Grandin, written for children, which I recently read, is a stirring page-turner), but I certainly can’t tolerate it in a novel. There are certain expectations for build-up and pay-off in a novel. The whole purpose, as I see it, of writing a documentary novel is to have it both ways–to employ the best techniques and qualities of nonfiction and fiction. And for me, this book doesn’t work as either nonfiction or fiction.
I really appreciated Sophie Brookover’s careful consideration at SLJ’s Printz Blog and I agree with many of her points..