Only Twice I've Wished for Heaven by Dawn Turner Trice

From a newspaper clipping that opens Dawn Turner Trice's first novel, we know that Alfred Mayes, street preacher, murdered Valerie Nicholae, a girl from an affluent African-American community in 1976. Trice places great importance on showing how Valerie's death is not an isolated incident but an end result of social and economic forces that culminate in the neglect of children. This story is not an unraveling of who did it, but an exploration of why and how it could happen.

The setting is 1976 Chicago. Lakeland, a gated community whose social fabric, "as loosely woven and thin as tissue paper," rises up like an Emerald City; its sidewalks sparkle, and its artificial lake gleams a dyed blue-green. Just on the other side of a locked, guarded, ivy-covered fence, lies Thirty-fifth Street, a world of have-nots: drug addicts, prostitutes, the destitute and desperate. If all this seems heavy-handed, it is, and this can easily happen when a writer's social message begins to eclipse the development of the novel. What saves "Only Twice I've Wished for Heaven" from total flatness is Trice's insistence on pointing out ambiguities and complexities--if the ivy-covered fence looms larger than any other construction in the novel, the characters' efforts to undermine it give some presence to this heavy symbol. The locked fence is always before us, Trice suggests. Who will bring it down?

Like the setting, the characters struggle against flatness. Miss Jonetta Goode ("that's Good with an e"), store owner, former prostitute, and the novel's positive and healing force, lives on Thirty-fifth Street. Miss Jonetta is a kind of blues angel, who has an understanding of pain and experience, which is, as she says of the blues, "a beautiful gift wrapped in bows of suffering." She, accompanied by a squad of men who've been around, spends her time safe in her store on Thirty-fifth Street, away from the street preachers, one magnetic, dangerous man, in particular: Alfred Mayes. His flock of followers, the New Saveds, work to convert the people of Thirty-fifth Street.

The other of the novel's two narrators, Tempestt Rosa Saville (Temmy), is innocence to Miss Jonetta's experience. As an adult, she reminisces on her spunky and curious eleven-year-old self, as Miss Jonetta says she must, in order to heal: "One day she'd have to gather the events the way you would loose petals on a flower and piece them together again." In this sense, the novel is about pain and recovery, though not just of individuals, but of whole communities. The reader must follow Temmy. winding back to the vertiginous horror of the crime, facing with her our condition and the forces that have created it.

Ultimately, Valerie's murder is caused by the destruction of a once cohesive and strong African-American community. The promise--perhaps myth--of Northern jobs drew people away from harsh racism, but did little or nothing to prevent poverty and did a whole lot to encourage greedy ambition. Miss Jonetta would probably say that the key to healing the world can be found in looking out for children.

As likable as the narrators are, their voices sometimes falter: Miss Jonetta sounds like an educated writer rather than a storyteller at some points, while sounding almost like a parody at others. Temmy's voice can sound stilted--as if her adult-self, isn't remembering her child-self very clearly. However, though Trice is not Gloria Naylor, as the jacket notes promise, the novel is worth reading for anyone interested in compassionate exploration of an important and relevant social issue.