Segregation didn’t vanish in the 1960s. That’s evident in Mathea Morais’ novel “There You Are,” which is about growing up in St. Louis in the 1990s. Despite legal integration, the St. Louis of the novel is an extremely segregated city, where most whites and Blacks grow up barely knowing members of the other race, making them objects of anger and fear.
In this setting, two children, one white, one Black, meet when they hide in the same enclosed slide on the playground of a mostly Black public school. Mina hides because she’s constantly teased for her odd clothes, and Octavian because he gets anxiety attacks and needs to isolate himself until his heart rate settles down. They bond over comic books. Mina learns ways to calm Octavian’s heart and Octavian helps Mina feel she has a place at the school. During the next three decades, they are separated, then come together, then separate again.
One of the places they come together is a used record store in the Loop, run by Bones, a white lover of blues music. The Loop is one of the few neighborhoods where Black and white both go to shop. The record store becomes a common meeting place, as well as a place to work, for teenagers of both races.
One of the employees, of course, is Mina; another is Octavian. This time they’re teenagers and very quickly fall in love. In doing so, they run up against the challenges and limits of bonding across the racial divide. Octavian wonders if his late mother would even approve of him dating a white girl; Mina is lectured by a policewoman for bringing a Black kid to her home.
Music figures large in the story’s resolutions, which effectively comes with its own playlist — the chapters set in Mina and Octavian’s childhood each come with their own signature songs — featuring songs by Joan Armatrading, Joni Mitchell, Ella Fitzgerald and Afrika Bambaata. As a pre-teen, Mina falls in love with Prince when she hears “Little Red Corvette,” and Bones gives her a steep discount if she’ll promise to listen to the whole album.
Morais, who is white, walks a careful line in portraying the growing bond between the two children and teenagers while not minimizing the gulf of experience that separates them. Octavian has grown up knowing that he’s always in danger from the St. Louis police, who are given to randomly pulling over and arresting Black teenagers who don’t act submissive enough. Mina has grown up around Black people and is in love with hip-hop, jazz and R&B, but she easily forgets the underlying anxiety of being Black. She does understand more than her mother, a lawyer with a hippie background, who can’t understand why it’s racist when she tells Octavian he’s smart to major in art, which “his people” are good at, instead of trying to be a nerd like white people!
In a memorable scene, Mina and Octavian have an argument at Mina’s house. She runs inside, leaving him alone in the front yard. It’s after dark, and Octavian realizes that he cannot walk home through her white neighborhood — he’s too much at risk of being arrested for walking while Black. He’s forced to explain to an angry Mina why he needs a ride from her, something he would never have had to explain if she wasn’t white.
Author Morais leaves unanswered the question of whether love can overcome the gulf between Octavian and Mina. The closest she gets is when Mina’s Black friend Clarissa first says “you’ll never know what the world looks like through eyes that aren’t white, just like I won’t know what the world looks like through eyes that aren’t black” but later admits, speaking of love between two people, “as much as this matters, it’s not all that matters.”
“There You Are,” in spite of its unexciting title, tells an interesting and timely story. As Mina and Octavian grow up, the issues that are private in their youth become public when the police kill Michael Brown and protests erupt in Ferguson, which is a suburb of St. Louis. The characters ring true, both in their ambivalence toward each other and in the bond they form in spite of their differences. In fact, the only piece of the story that doesn’t ring quite true is an abusive relationship that Mina gets into after Octavian turns away from her; it seems possible, but not well enough developed.
What does seem true is the power of music to bring people together. Morais modeled Bones’ store after a real record store in St. Louis, and it would be interesting to know if that store had a similar effect on the people around it. The feel of music of all kinds — jazz, classic rock, soul, hip-hop, blues — suffuses the narrative and gives resonance and a kind of joy to it, even in the most fraught moments.
“There You Are” is Morais’ first novel; it will be interesting to read what she does next.
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