In this electric novel, Mary Slechta brings magical realism and U.S. history to bear on the community of Mulberry Street— an African-American neighborhood with a disputed past. Is this enclave the result of white flight, a tenuous foothold for Southern transplants, or a sliver of the world that spun off during creation, once ruled by a god named Mr. Washington? Variously featuring the area’s residents, Mulberry Street Stories uphold the perseverance of hope despite intergenerational trauma and demonstrate the interconnection of human lives throughout time. Slechta’s characters have seen it all, from the persistent mechanisms of systemic racism—forced migration, redlining, gentrification, and more—to the fantastical—children at danger of falling off a flat world; a vampire posing as Henry Box Brown; and a husband tasked with building a supernatural maze to trap the “somethin,” the faceless oppression that has long plagued his family and now threatens his wife. In one exemplary story, Slechta writes an ode to Toni Morrison, honoring her project to elevate the untold. The protagonist, Marjorie, a griot once charged with remembering things exactly as they happened but now suffering from Alzheimer’s, wanders away during a fugue. Drawn in by a taproom’s enchanting music, she begins orating to strangers, captivating the bartender and unknown patrons, one of whom rests his hand on her limb “like a penny on the arm of a record player”—the touch that keeps the disjointed tales together.
from “The Flat World”
When the World was a scattershot of rocks, the upper block of Mulberry Street was a sliver floating in space. Untethered and unbalanced, the upper block held its tenuous position by tending to tilt downward, south to north. Sometimes at an angle that defied imagination, and sometimes with deadly consequences.
There were tragic stories of Big Wheels flying over the edge and children tumbling behind a puppy or escaping a pit bull. There were cautionary ones, too. A girl in pigtails, birthday gifts stacked to her eyeballs, chasing down a balloon. A boy, his cheek fat with a wad of gum or jaw breaker, last seen craning his neck toward the west, coveting the roundest, reddest lollipop at the edge of the world. All of them vanishing into the gaping chasm at the bottom of the block.
It took courage to leap the chasm, but generations of children persisted. They had no choice, for their names were entered into the records. With hearts in their throats, they leapt. Through rain and sleet and snow, they leapt. Through dark of morning, hopscotching to a crumbling rock and withering flag. To pledge allegiance to a world that didn’t exist. The indivisible one.
Mary Slechta fills her stories with houses — both longed-for and haunted — and this novel delivers a compelling mix of place and imagination. The swimming pools, vegetable gardens, and street corners are populated with characters whose voices ring true. The stories of Mulberry Street first create a familiarity, then mix that feeling with surprise and anticipation. This evocative debut takes you there with stories that linger after an absorbing read.
Mulberry Street Stories by Mary Slechta is a ruthlessly compassionate look at a neighborhood—in all its glories and horrors—stitched together by the redemptive power of love and grit. The people, the language, the memories, the secrets, the joys, and the heartache all spoke to me in ways that were both familiar and unimaginable. Take your time with this book, because it certainly takes its time with you.
Slechta employs dazzling prose and sentences that crackle like firelight, as she creates the imaginary world of Mulberry Street and fuels its humble denizens with life and breath. Slechta steps boldly, yet convincingly, outside prescribed norms of storytelling, and the reader is compelled to follow. By turns familiar and startling, these stories are as powerful as they are original.
Mulberry Street is a place of history, legend, and magic — a landscape where bellies talk and wishes are granted and ladies disappear into sidewalk cracks and hope ultimately blooms in the heaviest of hearts. Mary Slechta’s astounding novel follows in the footsteps of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Maxine Clair’s Rattlebone, viewing the stories of Black people’s suffering and resilience through its own magical lens. Wildly inventive and engaging, Mulberry Street offers an illuminating vision of a Black past, present and future. A dazzling must-read!