Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s third novel, On the Rooftop, is a creative exploration of family, community and resilience set in San Francisco’s historically Black Fillmore neighborhood in the 1950s.
Told from multiple perspectives, the novel centers on Vivian, who came to San Francisco from New Orleans after the death of her husband, the father of her children. She works a good job as a medical assistant, but past traumas and current precariousness prevent her from feeling true comfort. She puts most of her energy toward shepherding the singing careers of her three daughters, Ruth, Esther and Chloe, who perform as a group called the Salvations. Vivian dreams of more for her daughters and tirelessly pushes them to practice on their building’s rooftop in preparation for their shows at the Champagne Supper Club.
Vivian’s daughters have their own dreams, however. Their mother believes the eldest, Ruth, has the most star potential, but Ruth’s hopes are a bit more modest. Middle daughter Esther is searching for her own voice while grappling with past traumas. Chloe, the overlooked youngest, is grasping for recognition in both her professional life and personal relationships. Amid all this, their Fillmore neighborhood is being threatened by an urban renewal program that would dismantle the physical and symbolic community.
Loosely inspired by Fiddler on the Roof, On the Rooftop is a refreshing work of historical fiction that provides a window into Black life outside of the direct prism of racist oppression. While the specters of racism are present in the story, Sexton chooses to center themes of motherhood, memory, music and hope. She has carefully imagined a compelling social world built on the very real cultural dynamics of the legendary Fillmore neighborhood, known as the “Harlem of the West” for the vibrant Black community within its borders.
On the Rooftop is a quiet page turner that can serve as a beacon of hope in any trying time.