Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

Barry Gifford’s Sad Stories of the Death of Kings is a series of vignettes that, in the beginning, feel random, but glue themselves together in your mind as you read until, by the end, you’ve got a picture of a time and a place and a kid’s life in it

The late fifties/early sixties is the time, Chicago is the place, and Roy is the kid.

It’s a time and place I remember well. I grew up in Hammond, Indiana, about forty miles from Chicago. When I was a child, there were occasional excursions to the city—school trips to the Field Museum or the Museum of Science and Industry and family outings to White Sox games or to see the Christmas windows at Marshall Fields and Carson Pirie Scott. My mom worked at Carson’s, in Hammond, and once a year we drove into the city for their annual employees’ day, when the store was open on a Sunday only for their employees and families with special discounts galore.

My English grandparents visited us in 1957, when I was ten, and I remember driving along the lakeshore in early evening after we’d picked them up at Midway Airport feeling so proud when they said how lovely it was. Thrilled by the way they said it, in their wonderful English accents.

My friend Linda’s dad worked in the city and when we were in high school sometimes he’d let us drive in with him on Saturday morning and drop us off in the Loop. It was too early for the Carson’s or Marshall Fields or—our favorite—Krochs & Brentanos Book Store to be open, so we’d get Cokes at the soda fountain in Walgreens and hang out there for a while. We never had much money to spend, but we loved to browse the big department stores, and look at the books and stationery in Krochs & Brentanos, the sticks of sealing wax in a dozen colors and the gold stamps, each with a letter of the alphabet on it, meant to press into the hot wax over the sealed part of the letter so the recipient could tell if someone had opened it. A boyfriend, preferably, though neither of us had one. Late in the afternoon, we’d walk over to the Randolph Street station and take the South Shore home.

When we got drivers' licenses, sometimes a bunch of us girls would sneak off for a night on the town in somebody’s parent’s car. At least once an evening, stopped at a red light, someone would yell “Chinese Fire Drill” and we’d all jump out of the car, run around it, and get back in. All the better if the light changed in process and people started honking. We’d head north, past the building we knew housed WLS radio, where Dick Biondi was spinning the tunes turned up full-blast on our radio.

But the absolute best thing was Old Town. It was the closest thing to Greenwich Village that the Midwest had to offer, with its mix of beatniks and down-and-outs and young city people out for the evening. Wells Street was one big traffic jam in the early sixties and we’d cruise from one end to the other and back again, radio blaring, flirting with carloads of boys doing the same thing. Then we’d get out and thread our way through throngs of people on the street, stopping here and there to listen to the folk music we could hear coming out of the clubs we were still too young to enter.

Sad Stories of the Death of Kings brought all this back to me—and more.

“Fruit boots,” for example.

“Style of shoe popular in the 1950’s and 60’s, ankle-high suede shoes with crepe rubber soles conventionally known as desert boots. English Mods embraced desert boots made by Clarks and their popularity spread to the U.S. where they were labeled “fruit boots” because of their perceived popularity with perceived homosexuals.” (Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.)

Of course, I was clueless about what “fruit” meant at the time. Not to mention “queer,” which was a word we used regularly to describe someone or something weird or uncool.

(“Don’t you ever let me hear you use that word again,” my father said, truly upset, when I called my brother a queer at the dinner table one night. “Why?” I asked. But he wouldn’t tell me.)

“There they are,” Jimmy said. “I told you she’d be here.”

Standing halfway down the block were two girls, both wearing black scarves around their heads, navy blue pea coats, short black skirts with black tights and black fruit boots. One of them was smoking a cigarette.

“Bad Girls,” said Roy.

“I hope so,” said Jimmy Boyle.

I wasn’t a bad girl. I was too scared. But I knew those girls, and Barry Gifford got them just right. He got everything right.

If you grew up in the Chicago are in the fifties or sixties and you want your kids (or, gasp, grandkids) to know what it was like, or if you’re a Social Studies teacher who wants to bring that time alive for your students, introduce them to Sad Stories of the Death of Kings. The cool thing is that it comes in a special young adult edition.

How cool is it that Seven Stories Press figured out that this book, like so many good YA books, is equally compelling to kids and adults. We adults get our own edition, with a grittier image on the cover.

Though Gifford wrote the book for adults, he likes the idea of dual editions. “I thought, why not? I’m happy to have this double-barreled publication,” he said. Seven Stories asked him to change only one sentence. The new sentence ended up going into both editions.

I hope Sad Stories of the Death of Kings will be wildly successful for two reasons. One, because it’s a really good book and two, because success might mean good things for YA authors writing books that appeal to older readers as well as young ones.

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