The basics: Like all the books in this series, Atlanta's West End neighborhood is the main character. The people who live, work, and love in this neighborhood appear in major and minor roles throughout these novels. In Seen It All and Done the Rest, actress Josephine Evans returns to Atlanta after thirty years in Amsterdam to visit her granddaughter, Zora, a pivotal character in Baby Brother's Blues, and check on the duplex she inherited. (note: Zora's story contains major spoilers from Baby Brother's Blues.)
My thoughts: It's no secret Pearl Cleage is among my favorite authors, and this novel has many of her trademarks: themes of social justice, community empowerment, and the nature of home. What's new about Seen It All and Done the Rest, however, is the emphasis on the deterioration on the neighborhoods surrounding the West End, including where Josephine's house is. Much has changed in the thirty years Josephine lived and worked in Amsterdam. The Atlanta she sees is not one she recognizes:
"All those dreams have dovetailed into a community-wide nightmare where casual violence is the order of every day, vandalism is a spectator sport, and a strange sense of entitlement allows those unwilling to work at anything to still feel they have the right to kick in somebody’s door to get the things they want. Young people are angry and confused. Old people are scared to leave their houses for fear of being mugged or worse. And in the middle, the rest of us look around and wonder how it all fell apart so fast."Faced with her rental property as a squatter's paradise and a low-ball offer from a developer, Josephine opts to fix up the home, along with the help of Zora, some familiar West End faces, and a few new characters.
Amidst this backdrop of neighborhood changes are once again undercurrents of the war. In Amsterdam, Josephine increasingly felt the animosity of Europeans to Americans in light of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Back in the United States, she's struck by how different the war appears: "There was none of the energy of the antiwar demonstrations in Paris and Amsterdam. There was none of the feeling here that our presence as citizens could really affect anything our government did one way or another." This novel is firmly rooted in its time and place in many ways, but there's also a sense of timelessness to these characters and their stories.
Favorite passage: "I was grateful, too. Not for a chance to play the voyeur at thirty thousand feet, but because that’s one of the things I really like about people. We don’t care how many rules you make, we’re going to find a way to fall in love and have sex on airplanes and make babies and laugh and cry and live free. That’s just something we do, and all the wars and all the governments and all the armies you can put together to stop us won’t make one bit of difference. Especially when you’re moving along effortlessly at five hundred miles an hour and the flight attendants are half dozing and the cool-looking older lady that’s watching has probably seen it all and done the rest. That’s how she got to be so cool."
The verdict: Cleage is a master of fast-paced social justice fiction filled with characters with whom you can laugh and cry and for whom you can't help but cheer. Seen It All and Done the Rest is no exception. It's an inspiring, yet honest, look at contemporary African-American life in Atlanta.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: March 18, 2008
Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Seen It All and Done the Rest from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)
Also by Pearl Cleage: What Looks Like Crazy On an Ordinary Day and I Wish I Had a Red Dress
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