Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Coldest Winter Ever

While I work on new fiction, I have been reading a lot of other people's fiction and, because I have not posted to this blog for months but do read about a book a week, and because I want to clarify my thoughts about the books I'm reading, I plan to spend the next several months writing about other people's fiction, starting with Sister Souljah's The Coldest Winter Ever.

I came to it because students in a prison fiction writing class talked about urban fiction as a genre and recommended it highly. The book has been out since 1999, so I am coming to it late. But it's still in print and the 2006 paperback edition I bought announced there are a million copies in print. With all that, I'd never heard of it. A

If one of the reasons to read fiction is to learn about other lives and other cultures, I can unequivocally recommend The Coldest Winter Ever. The protagonist, Winter Santiaga who tells her own story, is a 17-year-old woman of color who is the daughter of a wealthy Brooklyn drug-dealing family. She worships her father, has three younger sisters (Porsche, Lexus, and Mercedes, which says something about the family's values), is sexy and smart, if contemptuous of school. " policy was to go to school just enough so the authorities wouldn't kick me out. If I had a new outfit to show off or some new jewels I knew I'd get sweated for, fine, but I wasn't gonna report to school every day like it was some type of job when they weren't even paying me for it. School was like a hustle. Teachers wanted me to come to school so they could get paid to control me. What do I get out of the deal?"

When Winter's father is arrested; his entire drug-dealing organization rolled up; the house, cars, jewels, and other property confiscated; her mother picked up; and her sisters taken by Child Protective Services, Winter is—for a while at least—on her own. She makes one questionable decision after another, running on pure appetite and rationalization. I suspect the book would be very irritating if Winter were an adult—how could she be so stupid?—but as an adolescent I was willing to follow her from one crisis to another. What is she going to do next?

Because I know so little about the world that Sister Souljah portrays, I believed these characters in these situations would speak and act in the way they do. Souljah includes herself as a character in the book, a do-gooder that Winter tries to use and for whom she has little patience: "On the radio, suddenly Sister Souljah started talking shit, her coarse voice overpowering the music. 'The number one group of people dying from AIDS is young black women.' I popped in a tape to shut her down before she started gettin' on my damn nerves."

Winter is a force of nature. I'm not sure that she has learned anything socially useful by the end of the book. But the reader has, I believed, learned much about the assumptions, attitudes, and lives of men and women in our ghettos.

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