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Excerpt from Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Reading with Patrick

A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship

by Michelle Kuo

Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo X
Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2017, 320 pages
    Apr 2018, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Lewis
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Print Excerpt

Chapter 1
A Raisin in the Sun

Where Helena sits on the banks of the Mississippi, the river is quiet, peaceable. Summer songbirds talk with frogs, with a tsee tsee tew tew cheer cheer. Wild dewberries bloom on the bluffs, where they dangle, ripe but unplucked. In the water below, catfish form shadows, ready to gorge on what the wind shakes in. For thousands of years the river routinely flooded these banks, building the most fertile soil in the world. In the mid-nineteenth century, plantation owners yielded from this soil a single crop—cotton—and cotton made it slave country.

Slave owners in the Delta were the richest moguls in the nation, and the wealthiest 10 percent of Arkansas's population owned 70 percent of its land. Steamboats competed with railroads to transport cotton from Helena. After the Civil War, the lumber industry took off, and the swampy hardwoods in the Delta offered yet another source of wealth. People flocked here for wages at the twenty-four sawmills and the docks, the fish fries and the juke joints, the opera house and the saloons. Toss dice, haul wood, make moonshine, repeat. Helena was, as Twain wrote in 1883, the prettiest situation on the river and the commercial center of a broad and prosperous region.

In 2004, the year I arrived in Helena, Twain's city was hard to imagine. On Cherry Street, the town's main drag, wooden planks covered windows. There was a No Loitering sign on an abandoned storefront even though the actual loiterers were across the street, hovering around the town's only liquor store. The marquee of a long-shuttered store had become the canvas of a prankster: Starbucks Coming Soon. Sincerity was more likely to be found on the marquees of churches, which abounded. No such thing as rehab without Jesus, said one. There was no coffee shop, no bookstore, no movie theater, and no more than a handful of restaurants. When I asked where to get good coffee, people recommended McDonald's. (It wasn't bad.)

Helena had begun an effort to market an enchanting part of its history, the blues, at the old train depot, which was converted to a museum. The museum shares stories and photos of black musicians who sang in Helena, lived in Helena, visited Helena, used Helena as a stepping-stone to Chicago, or retired in Helena when Chicago didn't work out. Their names are evocative, often involving infirmity or animals: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Howlin' Wolf, Super Chikan. Exhibits here have hopeful titles—A Heritage of Determination, reads one, or Struggle in a Bountiful Land—but few visitors.

People say Helena's decline truly began with the closing of Mohawk Rubber and Tire Company. When it shut down in 1979, the middle class, both black and white, fled. Then Arkla Chemical, a fertilizer company, was shuttered. The bowling alley, the movie theaters, the shops, and the nicer restaurants followed suit. Those who grew up here left, trying to find jobs in Little Rock, Memphis, Fayetteville, or Texas; families stopped coming here to live. When I first arrived in Helena, I worried what locals would think of teachers who left the community after Teach For America's standard two years. But soon I realized my question presumed that leaving was novel to the experience of living in Helena. What was novel was that young teachers would travel here at all. "The saddest day is high school graduation," one grandparent would later tell me, referring to the kids who had found opportunities elsewhere, "because those kids won't come back."

People here got what jobs they could. Old men knocked on doors, asking to pick up sticks in the yard for money. The guard at the county jail also worked part-time at McDonald's. A big employer was the casino, technically in Mississippi, just across the river. Funerals provided a steady stream of business. If you drove down Plaza Avenue, on a block no longer than half a mile, there were three funeral homes, a tombstone store, and a flower shop. On a lawn in front of a store, large blank headstones lay flat, reflecting the light. Walmart also did well. On any given school day, teenage girls could be found browsing the many aisles of its baby section. (Outside—on weekends—the high school church group peddled abstinence pamphlets.) Phillips County, of which Helena is the seat, was one of the poorest counties in the country, and ranked last in the state of Arkansas in public health. Its teenage birthrate was higher than that of ninety-four developing countries. There were regular shoot-outs in town. Drugs were a problem, and police officers were busted by the feds for trafficking.

Excerpted from Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo. Copyright © 2017 by Michelle Kuo. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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