Book Review: On the Come Up

On the Come Up: A Novel, Based on a True Story, by Hannah Weyer, 320 pages, adult fiction, 4.5 stars, recommended for high school

In short… This wonderful coming-of-age novel, based on the life of actress Anna Simpson, takes readers through the life of a teenager growing up in the projects of Far Rockaway. Through the main character of AnnMarie, readers journey through the foster care system, the projects, teen pregnancy, public school in New York City, dysfunctional relationships of all sorts, the making of an independent film, young motherhood, and more. Hannah Weyer manages to take on the ever-complicated life of this character without appearing to juggle chainsaws, which is impressive in and of itself. Even better is the realism of this story; despite the hardships and trauma of AnnMarie’s life, despite the surprising break an indie film offers, the novel follows a character making a normal life after the flash in the pan has dimmed. Put this in your high school independent reading library, add it to a literature circle unit for students to discuss in groups, or add it to your units on coming-of-age. Paired with To Kill a Mockingbird: the comparisons students could draw between Scout and AnnMarie, the examination of gender in these two societies, the value and influence of setting, and so on! Click more for a detailed review!

As a reader… I bought this novel right after seeing the movie “Our Song,” which stars Anna Simpson (the fictional AnnMarie). The movie was screened at Brooklyn Academy of Music in honor of the book’s release. Attending this event was like being at someone’s family reunion – the director, Jim McKay, and his wife/the author of the novel, Hannah Weyer, spoke of and to Anna as if she were their daughter. Members of the step band featured in the film took up a bulk of the seats, and much of the audience had some connection to the actors or creators, even by degrees removed. I was there because my friend and fellow teacher had met McKay and Weyer at a gala she attended with a student who had participated in a filmmaking contest. The principal of my friend’s school also knows the couple – they work with students at her school – so staff members and teachers also attended. The film was beautiful (it’s on Netflix streaming, so just go watch it), as was the excerpt of the novel that was read before the showing, and Simpson, Weyer, and McKay spoke of each other and “Our Song” with such love and pride that I could not resist the book.

I read it in two days, gulping down the prose so quickly, but pausing to go back and reread. The novel is written in third person, but in dialect that mirrors AnnMarie’s speech. It feels close and intimate, and there’s poetry in the prose, phrases I read and reread and said out loud to no one. Set in Far Rockaway, of Queens, New York, the story follows AnnMarie from the age of 13 to about 18, delving into her early years in foster care and visiting her birth mother at a shelter, living in poverty with her mother, an abusive relationship, pregnancy, a fleeting career as an actress, to figuring out how to support herself and her child. Told like this, the story should be bleak and depressing, another tale of a downtrodden black girl growing up in the projects. I’ve read many reviews from readers that felt this way having read the book, but I can’t agree. I think Weyer manages to avoid turning this life into a cautionary tale, or cheapening AnnMarie’s experiences with an unrealistic happy ending. AnnMarie is not crushed by her life, and she isn’t saved from it; she goes through it and she keeps living it. It’s the kind of story I don’t see enough of – life can be hard, and life can be amazing, but in the end, it’s just your life; you just live it.

I loved the story, the characters Weyer brought to life, and I loved the dialect Weyer writes in. However, even as I love it, I can’t pretend there isn’t something complicated about Weyer writing the book in a dialect that she does not use. If I hold On the Come Up side by side to Random Family, I know that I feel more comfortable with the neutral 3rd person narrator, which allows for real speech in the form of transcripts, letters, and dialogue. On the other hand, I appreciate and enjoy Weyer’s narrator, the closeness to AnnMarie, the feeling of a character versus a voiceover. The dialect is fairly well done, although the narrator slips out of vernacular at times, suddenly and randomly, but it’s not as jarring as one might think.

Weyer also really captures the isolated feeling of Far Rockaway, something that resonates with me as a teacher of students in the Bronx. It’s always shocking for my Manhattan-dwelling friends, most of whom moved here from outside of New York, to learn that the vast majority of my students have never been to Manhattan, or the other boroughs. It seems ludicrous, in a city with so much public transportation, that anyone, let alone a teenager, could live here and not explore. Weyer illustrates so well the way that communities in the outer boroughs become insular and self-sufficient, to the point that traveling outside becomes terrifying. Weyer deftly imbues the sense of remove in a community like Far Rockaway – “trapped” is too strong a word for the feeling that keeps AnnMarie and her neighbors from straying. AnnMarie’s first trip on the Manhattan-bound A train is amazing – exhilarating and a little scary, rich with uncertainty. The scene was vivid, bringing me back to my first trip to the Rockaways and that same surreal feeling as the train raced over the surface of the water and houses rose on stilts around us, AnnMarie and I both wondering how Manhattan skyscrapers could exist in the same New York.

As a teacher… There are so many reasons I would read this with kids, or recommend this to kids. Whatever issues I have with the dialect, I think it’s a great idea to have a contemporary text in vernacular in your library or on your reading list. When Linda Christensen is talking about the language of power and recognizing the power of “real”  language, I think she’s talking about books like these, models that show stories do not have to be written in a given form of language to be considered worthy. Another reason there will be multiple copies of this in my classroom library is because of how refreshingly (at moments, depressingly) normal AnnMarie’s life turns out to be. I don’t mean boring, or predictable. But so often the narrative of projects-kid-turned-movie-star is that rags to riches story; you get this big break and your whole life is different now. Everything is better. AnnMarie’s life as a performer is more realistic. She stars in a remarkable film, gives a noteworthy performance, gets to travel to Sundance, but the red carpet doesn’t precede her for the rest of her life. She isn’t catapulted to some higher plane. After the movie, she has a few small acting roles, but then she has to get a regular job. She models once or twice, but no miraculous agent or fashion icon swoops in to rescue her from her life. She has to make her own life. It’s less a message than it is just a truth. Everything she goes through, it’s all remarkable, but it’s also all real and regular, and I think that’s not only important, but also interesting, to read.

In a classroom… The first ideas that came to mind when thinking of how to use this in a classroom were pairings. In my head, OTCU naturally syncs up with Their Eyes Were Watching God and To Kill a Mockingbird. The use of dialect in these novels would be an interesting study, examining what dialect does for a story, how authors capture a culture, a setting, a character, through the use of dialect. I think anything from an excerpt to a whole class study to a book club and discussion model could work there. I also love the idea of bringing in the movie that AnnMarie, and real-life inspiration Anna Simpson, stars in – “Our Song.” The film shares a similar theme with the novel, in the idea that it presents some real, ordinary lives. The three characters face difficult decisions and deal with harsh realities, but the film is neither bleak nor artificially cheerful. There would be so many interesting layers to studying this film and novel – comparing AnnMarie’s life to the life of her character in the film, analyzing the representations of “normal” lives in these communities and situations. I think there’s also the great opportunity to look at the lives of AnnMarie and her friends and neighbors, and hold them up to the real world. Students could engage in interrogating their communities, their own lives or the lives of those around them, and seeing how AnnMarie and Weyer’s depiction of Far Rockaway fit into the world. No matter how I incorporate this book into my classroom this year, I have a feeling I will need to buy several copies. It will be completely worth doing.

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