Friday, February 09, 2024

Fiction Review: Last Summer on State Street

I was looking through my long audio backlog for something to read for Black History Month when I found Last Summer on State Street by Toya Wolfe. I had, of course, chosen to download this 2022 release from the publisher's offerings, but I didn't remember hearing anything at all about it or hearing other readers mention it. It won the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year award and was a finalist for the PEN Open Book Award. This beautifully written, poignant coming-of-age story deserves a lot more attention.

Twelve-year-old Felicia "Fe Fe" Stevens lives in a high-rise Chicago Housing project apartment building with her mother and older brother in 1999. She loves to play Double Dutch with her two best friends, Precious and Stacia. The three of them seem like an odd group of friends on the outside. Precious comes from a very religious family, and Stacia's mother is Queen-Pin of a local gang, Gangster Disciples, with all of her older siblings already involved in the violent, drug-dealing gang. Fe Fe's mom is trying desperately to protect her two children from all of that, though it's all around them. The family has a set routine whenever gunshots are heard--to get down low in the hallway of their little apartment, where there are no windows. In spite of the chaos around them, the three girls do their best to enjoy childhood, going to school, buying icy cool treats in summer, and playing jump rope in a lobby area of Fe Fe's floor (the playground is a known gang domain). Fe Fe has noticed a girl who recently moved to their building, Tonya, and one day invites her to join their games. They soon learn that Tonya's mom is a drug addict. The highlight of that summer is when Fe Fe's mom takes the four girls downtown to see the fireworks on the Fourth of July. Besides gang violence, the residents of their building have another fear. They know they will get kicked out soon, as the buildings in their project get emptied and demolished by the Chicago Housing Authority one at a time. The view of the empty building across the street is a constant reminder that their home is only temporary. Soon, the innocence of their childhood games and friendships is interrupted by gang violence, police violence, and the ever-present threat of losing their homes.

This debut author has been compared to Jacqueline Woodson, and I can definitely see the parallels to some of Woodson's coming-of-age novels set in Brooklyn. These young girls are wonderfully complex characters, each dealing with her own challenges. While the topics in this novel are certainly dark and disturbing, the girls' childhood innocence and joy (especially at the beginning) are a welcome contrast to their depressing surroundings. The author paints a nuanced picture of that place and time, though I realized that places exactly like this still exist and are often invisible, whole populations living amid terrible violence and the threat of losing their homes to gentrification. The audio production was outstanding and immersive, narrated by Shayna Small, making me feel as if Fe Fe herself was telling me her story. It is told from Fe Fe's perspective as an adult, so there is some hope throughout, as you know that she grows up and turns out fine. I was captivated by this moving, powerful coming-of-age story and still find myself thinking about Fe Fe and her friends, a week after finishing it.

224 pages, William Morrow Paperbacks


This book fits in the following 2024 Reading Challenges:


Alphabet Soup Challenge - L

Diversity Challenge and February Mini Challenge: Black/African American

Literary Escapes Challenge - Illinois


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Listen to a sample of the audiobook here and/or download it from Audible. The sample will give you an idea of how Fe Fe's telling her story will pull you in and the setting.


Or get this audiobook from and support local bookstores (audio sample here, too).


Print and e-book from Amazon.


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  1. This sounds good, especially if it reminds you of Woodson.

  2. Excellent! This was her debut - can't wait to see what's next!