cover image Blue as the Lake CL

Blue as the Lake CL

Robert B. Stepto. Beacon Press (MA), $23 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-8070-0944-4

Through loosely linked, informal essays Stepto, a professor of English and Afro-American studies at Yale, traces his own past through his family's history and migrations. Starting with his childhood in the Washington Park and Woodlawn sections of Chicago and his family's summer cottage in Idlewild, a black resort on Lake Michigan, Stepto re-creates his comfortable, middle-class childhood and mourns the changes that have made it dangerous for him now to walk the streets that once gave his life form and substance. The essays in the second section tell compelling stories about individual members of his multiracial family, including jazz legend Coleman Hawkins. But they also tell about the diversity of memory, as when he describes differing family legends of how his paternal grandparents met and married. Stepto lets his material speak for itself; his difficult relationship with his father is summed up in a description of a family photo, in which they ""are up against a wall."" The writing is often pure elegy, e.g., when he recalls Hawkins's father ""ending his life by walking into the Missouri River one frosty February morning, his pipe still lit and glowing as he fiercely waded deeper and deeper--tired, so tired of being a shipping clerk at American Electrical and a `credit to his race' (as reported in the obituary), and maybe tired of his family, too."" Only the final essay, with its cranky observations about black youth culture and the marketing of black images on Martha's Vineyard, falls short of the elegance of the other pieces. Overall, though, these evocative meditations on home and family are thoughtful and moving. Photos not seen by PW. Editor, Deb Chasman. (Sept.)