I’m a fan of boundary crossings, those books that don’t sit neatly in one genre. Say Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck with their mix of textual and visual storytelling or Deborah Wiles’ Countdown with the atmospheric setting heightened through the use of documentary material. Now along comes another hybrid, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s superb No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller.
To say this is the story of a bookseller hardly does Lewis Michaux or his great-niece Nelson justice. For this bookseller was also political, socially aware, charming, smart, and a player through a significant historical time and place. Nelson spent years researching and figuring out how to tell the story of this incredible man. In her author note she writes:
Researching this family history was exciting and challenging, though nonexistent and conflicting information complicated the project, I did my best to tell Lewis’s story using facts when I could, filling gaps with informed speculation, making this a work of fiction. My goal was to leave readers with the essence of the man, an understanding of what shaped him, and a picture of how he and his National Memorial African Bookstore influenced a community. (166)
She brilliantly succeeds with this goal having created a book that is a community itself. A vibrant collection of voices take us from Lewis’s youth in early 20th century Newport News, Virginia all the way to 1970s Harlem. Throughout we hear from Lewis himself as he goes from a mischievous pig thief to a gambling den owner and on to the creator of a politically and unique Harlem institution, along the way considering the historical figures of his time — among them Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. We hear from his family — his lively father, his serious mother, his siblings — especially Lightfoot who establishes the reknown Church of God, his wives, and his son. And we hear from many others, in particular those who were touched by this charismatic man. Helping to provide context are fictionalized newspaper and magazine articles, programs for public events, and “off the record” memories of a fictional news reporter. And then there are the documents, among them photographs, fliers, programs, business cards, newspapers, death certificates, book covers and title pages, and FBI files.
I started the book wondering how I would ever manage to keep straight the many voices telling the story, but I had no need to worry. Each is absolutely distinct — when one returns to the narrative there is no question who it is. These individuals are poetic, energetic, moving, and full of fascinating historical information. In addition to the real people around Lewis, Nelson created several completely fictional characters based on “the oral-history stories of real people who were touched by the bookstore.” I particularly appreciated the”Harlem Teenager” later known as Snooze whose growing-up voice weaves among the other mostly adult voices. Furthering the genre-crossing aspect of the book are R. Gregory Christie’s excellent illustrations, the book’s fine design, and Nelson’s meticulous back matter filled with information and citations regarding her research.
No Crystal Stair is an elegant and riveting look at an extraordinary man who was part of a remarkable historical time.