- Sue Kwong
This winter, the Reader has set a humble goal for itself: to determine the Greatest Chicago Book Ever Written. We chose 16 books that reflected the wide range of books that have come out of Chicago and the wide range of people who live here and assembled them into an NCAA-style bracket. Then we recruited a crack team of writers, editors, booksellers, and scholars as well as a few Reader staffers to judge each bout. The results of each contest will be published every Monday, along with an essay by each judge explaining his or her choice. The Reader reader who best predicts the judges’ rulings will win a trip to Mexico.
In this week’s contest, the final bout of round two, Wendy McClure, author of The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, I’m Not the New Me, and the Wanderville series for kids; columnist for Bust; and editor at Albert Whitman and Company has to decide between Stuart Dybek’s I Sailed With Magellan and Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. To see the results of previous bouts, look here.
I confess I was sort of glad that Augie March didn’t make it to this round. It waited ominously on my desk, all 586 pages of it. I’d always meant to read it; surely I could be proactive by reading a page or two or 200 before the first-round judging, just in case? Somehow, over the holidays, I could not. So I felt relief—and some guilt too—when Julia Thiel went with I Sailed With Magellan instead. I had a milder pang of guilt relief when Andrea Battleground picked The House on Mango Street, a book I already knew, over the one I hadn’t read, The Book of My Lives.
I feel much less guilt now that I’ve had the great privilege of reading Magellan and Mango Street together and discovering how compellingly they match up. Both books are semiautobiographical coming-of-age stories about life in changing Chicago neighborhoods; both are mostly first-person narratives that follow their protagonists into young adulthood but occasionally inhabit other characters. Stuart Dybek and Sandra Cisneros attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the 70s, just a few years apart from each other; both are poets as well as fiction writers. The House on Mango Street was a One Book, One Chicago selection in 2009; Dybek’s earlier Chicago-based collection, The Coast of Chicago, was the pick in 2004.
Both authors have been part of my formative reading too: one of Dybek’s early stories, “Blight,” was one of the first short stories I admired after I discovered it in my parents’ copy of Chicago magazine in 1985; then in college in the 90s, I read and loved The House on Mango Street. So I began my reading with the sense of a clear kinship between these two books: two neighborhoods in the same city.
Certainly Magellan‘s Perry Katzek and Mango Street‘s Esperanza Cordero have plenty in common: both dutifully attend Catholic school, overhear their neighbors’ miseries, and know which streets to never cross. Their changing neighborhoods, Little Village and Humboldt Park, each have their own wild, otherwordly places. One key location in I Sailed With Magellan is a desolate industrial block filled with exotic bird sounds from a nearby birdseed factory, “raising a junglish chatter against the everyday chirp of sparrows;” while in “The Monkey Garden,” Esperanza and her friends play in a backyard garden turned feral: “Weeds mixed in. Dead cars appeared overnight like mushrooms. . . . [B]efore you knew it, the monkey garden became filled with sleepy cars.” In these books, Chicago is part dreamworld, and the authors bring their poetic sensibilities into play. Both believe fully in the enchantment of the city, and of language.
Beyond that common ground, though, I Sailed With Magellan has a far more detailed sense of place. The book is rich with references: Cermak Bowl, Riverview, the lumberyards on Ashland, Blue Island Avenue, the Sanitary Canal. Mango Street offers only the occasional Chicago street name (and it should be noted that the titular street name was chosen as a more poetic-sounding stand-in for Campbell Avenue, where Cisneros grew up), and nearly every other place is described in terms of next door, down the avenue, around the block, or in heartbreakingly blunt universal truths, such as the “ugly three-flats, the ones even the raggedy men are ashamed to go into.”
Dybek’s Chicago is also vaster, ranging from Archer Avenue on the south side to the Baha’i Temple, which Perry and his best friend happen upon one night while out driving, “rising, like a vision from The Arabian Nights, over the dark, suburban trees of Wilmette.” As the collection’s title makes clear, exploration is a recurring theme in I Sailed With Magellan: from childhood excursions to the beach at 12th Street to aimless drives around the North Shore in his late teens, Perry Katzek’s coming-of-age is measured by the city’s geography, his world expanding—at least for awhile, until parts of his world become lost to time and change years later.
But the limited scope of The House on Mango Street is just as meaningful—I’d say even more so. So many of the people Esperanza describes, especially the women, live narrow lives constrained by children, work, and other restrictions, and are often literally confined to home: Marin, who “we never see . . . until her aunt comes home from work, and even then she can only stay out front;” disabled Aunt Lupe, who lives out her days in a sunless second-floor rear apartment; Mamacita, who can’t speak English and sits all day listening, homesick, to Spanish radio. Rafaela leans out of her window like Rapunzel, wishing she could visit the dance hall down the street. Cisneros gives us the unseen Chicago, not just the forsaken neighborhoods, but the city barely glimpsed when one must get up in the dark and take two trains and a bus every day or stay at home under the orders of a father or husband.
It’s easy to conclude, as many have, that Mango Street is strongest as a universal narrative about inner-city life. Seeing it as a Chicago book, though, casts it in a bolder light. What does it mean to live here? it asks. Do the girls and women of Mango Street inhabit Chicago any less than the people—especially the boys and men—in Dybek’s stories, or in The Adventures of Augie March, for that matter? For Perry Katzek, having the freedom to roam the city is one of his few privileges, but it’s a privilege nonetheless. Reading Magellan at the same time as Mango Street, I began to consider how most of Perry’s rite-of-passage childhood encounters with the city happen in the company of his dad and uncle; how his mother, “Moms,” silent and rarely mentioned, stays home; how the only way a girl gets to see the fire-truck graveyard and other wondrous, gritty sights is when a guy like Perry takes her to see them. I don’t mean to call these things out as faults on Dybek’s part, or as weaknesses in I Sailed With Magellan, because of course they aren’t. But it’s because of Mango Street, and to Cisneros’s credit, that I came to notice these absences.
It’s that struggle to exist, against forces that ignore or overlook or erase, that comes through so powerfully in Cisneros’s use of form. Though they’re often described as vignettes, the stories in The House on Mango Street insist on being read as stories, even when they’re only 100-something words long. In some astutely designed editions of the book, the stories’ opening lines are set more than halfway down the page, using space and page breaks to give a sense of “trying to make it to the next page,” the way one might try to make groceries last until payday. No matter their layout, the stories in Mango Street are small for a reason. They’re small so that we can understand how perilously close they come to never being told at all.
I Sailed With Magellan is a great book; Dybek’s writing is virtuosic and often breathtaking. There’s a familiar, elegiac, and bittersweet sense of you had to be there, with the consolation that a well-told story is the next best thing to being there. But it doesn’t seem essential the way The House on Mango Street does. Cisneros reinvented the Chicago narrative with these stories, and after 31 years the invention holds up. The original house is gone, but the there of this book still feels immediate and real.
For those of you following along at home, this match was no contest: the overwhelming majority of you predicted that The House on Mango Street would advance.
The tournament is going to take a three-week break to allow the round three judges to catch up on their reading. But voting begins tomorrow to predict which two books will make it to the finals.
- Sue Kwong