Updated: Jan 20, 2019
Thanks to Penguin Random House for an advance copy of HARBOR ME for the purposes of this essay.
Disclaimer: Mild Spoilers for Harbor Me May Be Found in this Essay, Including Certain Text Excerpts
Please note: All text referenced or cited from the book is uncorrected and may contain errors or differences to the final product
When many consider the name Jacqueline Woodson, the most immediate work that comes into mind will most likely be Brown Girl Dreaming, the iconic award-winning memoir chronicling a girl in a poetic format. As many will remember from 2014, the book was heavily rooted in historical backgrounds, from its setting to even the characters and their perspectives. As a result, when attempting to analyze her latest book, 2018 release Harbor Me, it was jarring to see the blatant historical connections be wiped clean. However, upon further analyzation and pondering, the amount of historical connections and relations in her new book is actually quite staggering. Most are subtlety hidden, placed in plain sight but with a faint layer of smoke around it. And with such a complexed and enigmatic structure of historical connections, it came as no surprise that these references came from the oddly fashioned characters, from the initially awkward and shy Haley to the emotionally deprived Esteban. In the roster of characters’ moments together, it is clear that these are where most of the historical references are located. Delving into the text, one possible historical time period for the setting of Harbor Me were revealed.
Throughout the entire book, no specific year is mentioned for the time period of the story. Many other books, especially YA/children’s works, generally include the year as an additional detail. However, even with this rather strange removal, there are plenty of historical references and hints suggesting the time period. For instance, early into the book, specifically on page 50, the character Holly says, “It’s not like before when we couldn’t swim in pools or go to stores and stuff because we were black or something. It’s not segregation.” (Woodson). This quote clearly references the segregation era where blacks were treated as lower entities compared to other races. This era was only ended in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
At multiple points, in addition to this example, there are references to the segregation era and multiple characters find themselves being judged just for the color of their skin. This interesting narrative detail indicates that Harbor Me doesn’t take place in the 2000’s when racism against blacks was far less of a stereotype. These references point out that the book does take place after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but aren’t at a fully modern or present day perspective due to the fact that the subject of segregation is treated as a hot topic by the six primary characters. As a result, there is a remaining time period from 1964 to the 1990’s, when the final inklings of segregation died off. But as to determine which year it was in that time frame would be nothing more than guesswork. There simply isn’t enough additional evidence to support which year that Harbor Me does take place.
However, if a year had to be determined, I would hypothesize that the book takes place a few years following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, most likely 1967. Towards the 1990’s, there weren’t as many references to segregation as there may have been in the 1960’s. In addition, Woodson may have purposefully chosen this year to showcase the bravery of the six children as they each battled their own personal demons in the time period with the most hatred and cruelty.
However, even after hypothesizing that the book takes place in 1967, it still wasn’t enough to satisfy me to place the matter away and most likely isn’t enough to satisfy you either. It kept me awake at night, with my body faintly asleep but my mind racing with thoughts. I kept asking myself how a simple aspect of a book such as history could have such a minor yet pivotal role in storytelling.
However, the answer then finally came to me late Thursday afternoon, just after a satisfying dinner. What makes the historical background of Woodson’s Harbor Me both pivotal and inconsequential is that the book treats it with indifference but the reader does not. Throughout the book, and to Woodson’s credit, the actual pure history is never placed in the forefront. It is rather the history, storylines, and emotional arcs of the characters that leave the biggest impact. Each of the six characters’ journeys, from Haley to Esteban, provokes empathy and emotional connections that the book frankly doesn’t address. Harbor Me is an experience not about a tale rooted in realism and the grimness of actual history. It is a book about six children, all of which encountering obstacles that as an audience, we cheer for. To a fleeting reader, it may not matter where these characters come from or where the setting takes place. To that reader, pouring through the 192 pages late at night with a bright flashlight in their sore left hand, those details could not even exist and the book would still have the emotional residue that it captures so well.
As readers, we often confuse emotion for fact and fact for emotion. History often evokes such a powerful effect from us due to its everlasting realism. From the nine-year-olds sobbing from the gut-wrenching ending of Old Yeller to the young teen shook by the events of Louie Zamperini’s incredible journey in Unbroken, history always has and will play a vital role in literature. What makes Woodson’s Harbor Me astounding is that it doesn’t take those conventional risks. Rather than focusing on the pure emotion of the story, she places her sights on the roster of characters. There is never a moment where she places plot over character development, a choice which may affect some readers in a negative way in the short term, but eventually leads to a brilliant climax for the readers that stick through it.
As a whole, history is a vital part of our culture and especially literature. But it is not the only factor at play, and thanks to Woodson’s brilliant new book Harbor Me, that belief is not only solidified but stoned.
Jacqueline Woodson’s new book Harbor Me lands on store shelves on August 26th, 2018 and is available for pre-order below.