“Memory is a wilful dog. It won’t be summoned or dismissed but it cannot survive without you. It can sustain you or feed on you. It visits when it is hungry, not when you are. It has a schedule all of its own that you can never know. It can capture, corner you or liberate you. It can leave you howling and it can make you smile.”
Early in the novel Perlman revives the memory of the four little black girls who are killed by a bomb planted by white supremists while attending Bible class at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama. He then recounts the story of Elizabeth Eckford, one of nine chosen black students attempting to become the first students of their race to attend a school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Elizabeth’s parents don’t have a phone so don’t know the other eight students are to be taken to the school in police cars. She arrives there alone on the bus. She is wearing a black and white pleated skirt. Perlman shows us Elizabeth is a kind and intelligent fifteen year old girl. “She has always been very polite, always been a good girl, been no trouble to her teachers, always paid attention.” A large crowd is hurling abuse at her. The guards offer no protection. She walks the gauntlet. The crowd begins to surge towards her. She seeks kindness in the eyes of the guards but finds none. They block her way. The hatred of the crowd increases. She decides to retreat back to the bus stop. “These people didn’t know her. Where in her fifteen years of life was the thing she had done that was so bad they should hate her this much? There were so many of them and they all hated her.” The crowd presses closer and she hears the cry “Lynch her! Lynch her! Drag her over to this tree.”
This sets the theme. Perlman is going to revive moments of history in which the innocent have suffered unspeakable persecution because of their race. And not only that, he is going to do it in a way that engages the full surge and sweep of your protective instincts as a reader. He is going to get you to care deeply about his characters.
Essentially The Street Sweeper is a novel about storytelling itself and its redemptive power. And because Perlman is writing about oral histories this book is cleverly recounted, in the main, through dialogue. Perlman is no wordsmith and his prose is very direct and straightforward which makes it very easy to read. The two historians of the novel are Adam Zignelik, a drifting Jewish academic whose father was a prominent lawyer in the civil rights movement and Lamont Williams, the street sweeper himself, recently out of prison for a crime he didn’t commit – he drives his friend to a store out of kindness, unaware his friend is going to rob the store. Each of these characters, through an act of fate, will have a story told to him. The two narratives will eventually converge on one historical event – the Sonderkommando uprising at Auschwitz. This historical attempt at liberation will, at least, many years down the line, bring forth a liberation in the lives of the people who have kept the story alive.
In a nutshell this is an intelligent, cleverly constructed and moving page turner of a novel. Big thumbs up from me.