Review of the Day: Celeste's Harlem Renaissance
Celeste's Harlem Renaissance by Eleanora Tate. Little Brown & Company. $15.99.
The thick children’s historical novel faces a challenge that the thick adult or YA novel doesn’t have to deal with. Adults and, to some extent, teens are put off by the number of pages in their books less often than kids. A kid might breeze through a 500 page book of dragons, sure, but realistic novels will often give them pause. That isn’t to say that the thick historical novel for middle grades shouldn’t exist. It’s just that the author and editor must always bear in mind their audience when they take monumental pagination into account. If a book can justify its size, it shouldn’t have any problems. “Celeste’s Harlem Renaissance,” is a remarkable story of loyalty, choice, and forgiveness. It cannot, however, justify its 270+ pages, and this is truly heartbreaking. I love what author Eleanora Tate came close to doing here. I only wish it could have succeeded in the end.
For Celeste, it’s practically the end of the world. Her father’s come down ill and rather than be allowed to stay in her home in Raleigh, North Carolina, she’s being shipped off to live with her Aunt Valentina in up-and-coming twenties Harlem. For shy, uncertain, perpetually afraid Celeste, this is a tragedy. Then again, everyone says that Valentina lives a life of luxury amongst the elite of Harlem society. How bad could it be? As it turns out, pretty bad. Fired from her cushy job as an opera singer’s attendant, Valentina’s been reduced to scrubbing the floors of the theaters she longs to perform on someday. Celeste is soon helping out, and it looks like her nasty Aunt Society back in Raleigh was right when she said Valentina would work her to death. Slowly, however, the jobs lessen and Celeste comes to learn about, and appreciate, all the wonders of the Harlem Renaissance. She makes friends. She impresses people with her violin playing. But just as she starts settling in, word comes of a tragedy back home. Now Celeste needs to figure out where her heart, her loyalty, and her future lies. Fortunately, she has a new found strength to see her through her troubles.
Now I have a particular distaste for children’s books where a child travels to somewhere famous, say Harlem during the 1920s, and immediately runs into a couple big names while he or she is there. This was one of the many unfortunate crimes of “The Return of Buddy Bush,” and so it was with infinite relief that I saw Eleanora Tate was one smart cookie. It’s not that Celeste doesn’t have the briefest brushes with celebrity. She does meet James Weldon Johnson in a café, but that’s after she’s been in town a while and it’s loads better than the standard meeting-Langston-Hughes-on-your-first-day-on-a-street-corner version other authors would (and have) indulged themselves in. If the entire world of Harlem is there for you to write about, it’s difficult to pluck out the choicest people, places, and situations that will best serve your story. Tate, however, selects such moment with aplomb. You get a hint of the flavor of Harlem in this book without the text ever betraying the setting or the characters.
Speaking of characters, Celeste is a great heroine. Her growth is gradual but understandable and you root for her every step of the way. The problem is that Celeste is also uncharacteristically forgiving far and beyond past the point of believability. And when you get to the point where your protagonist isn’t understandable anymore, you’re in some kind of trouble. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me multiple times in the course of a 279 page novel, shame on the author for thinking we’d believe all of that. At some point Celeste is able to figure out that her aunt is jealous of her talents. “No matter what Aunti said, she was jealous of me, and jealousy was a terrible, dangerous thing. Like Aunt Society said, forgive, but don’t forget.” Unfortunately, Celeste seems incapable of heeding her own advice. Over and over and over, to the point where the readers finds themselves exhausted by their incredulity, Celeste keeps forgiving her aunt and forgetting her flaws. She’s convinced she can get Valentina to move back “home” to the South, and all a reader can wonder is why? Why would Celeste want this horrible horrible woman near her? It reaches a kind of crescendo of ridiculousness near the end when Valentina disappoints Celeste and her friends on their home turf of Raleigh. And even then Celeste is trying to get her to move to Raleigh again. It’s a broken record moment, and one that puts a sour taste in your mouth.
On the other hand, there were wonderful little real moments spotted throughout the text. Aunt Valentina’s jealousy of any praise that might get cast her niece’s way is as ridiculous as it is realistic. A kid might think it weird that an adult would get jealous of a child, but personal insecurities are rarely logical. Also, the slow conversion of Aunt Society from intolerant prune to difficult but understandable woman is so well done. So perfect. Tate’s characters have all three of their dimensions firmly in place. Even Valentina, busting with egotism and self-regard, has her good moments here and there.
The writing is lovely too. There are delicious sentences like, “Seemed like anything I tried to do to get back home was like grabbing fog with my fingers.” Or when Celeste returns to Raleigh again she’s told, “you’ve come back full of fire and sass, hair growing, filling out, speaking up. New York was good for you.” Tate knows how to keep a book moving, even if it means sloughing through unnecessary scenes and pages.
It's so frustrating that I liked this book. I liked it so much. I thought the story of Celeste was fascinating and that the arc of the story said some wonderful things. But there were at least 75 pages that could and should have been taken out right from the start. I finished this book roughly a month ago and gave it the old Did It Stay With Me test. And the thing about Tate’s writing is how memorable it is. I picked up the novel again and everything came flooding back to me. Not every author has that ability. What I would like to see is a paring down her writing in the future. Cut out the excess. Grasp those characters and those plots and those situations and put them out there without all the excess fat. This book reads like a sophisticated version of “Understood Betsy,” by Dorothy Canfield Fisher and shows many of the talents of the author. I urge you then to watch for Eleanora Tate in the future. This may only be her beginning.
Notes on the Cover: I'm actually rather fond of this. It took me a while to notice, but you can see that Celeste is, in a kind of skewed perspective, looking up at the image of her floozy aunt in the window. I like artist Suling Wang's clean lines and I appreciate that the publisher isn't trying disguise this book as contemporary (since I STILL haven't forgiven Scholastic for the crimes committed via A Friendship for Today). I may not fall into the majority on this one, but I like this cover.
First Lines: "Scoot your big bucket over, Cece, and let me have more room," Evalina yelled.
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