cover image Leon's Story

Leon's Story

Leon Walter Tillage. Farrar Straus Giroux, $15 (112pp) ISBN 978-0-374-34379-8

In this riveting autobiography, Baltimore janitor Leon Walter Tillage reflects on his life with all the vitality of a storyteller gathering his audience around him. He recalls his childhood as an African American sharecropper's son in 1940s North Carolina: ""Once you got on a farm you could work a lifetime and never get out of debt."" His mother made soup with ""pot likker,"" the liquid left over from cooking collard greens for the Johnsons (the white owners of the farm they worked). His job in the tobacco field was to walk behind his father's plow with a stick and flip up the tobacco; ""the dirt would smother it, you see."" Each afternoon Leon walked home from school with his friends, and often the white kids' bus would stop so they could throw stones: ""So what you would do when they were throwing stones at you, you would start screaming and hollering and begging. They liked that...."" These episodes have an unusual immediacy because the book is edited from recorded interviews conducted by Roth, whose daughter heard Tillage at a school assembly; oral histories have a way of stripping away the sentiment and going straight for the moments that are etched forever in the teller's memories. Tillage's words describe a time, only a few short decades back, when Klansmen and Jim Crow laws ruled the South. But he also tells of marching for his rights and of his own triumphs: ""There were bad times, but you know, there were rejoicing times, too."" Roth's (Martha and the Dragon) dramatic black-and-white collages pay homage to the power of Leon's story, a tale that does more in its gentle way to expose the horrors of racism than most works of fiction ever could. Ages 8-up. (Oct.)