Remember Us packs an understated but powerful punch. National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson’s lyrical coming-of-age novel is set in Brooklyn, New York, during the 1970s, when people called Bushwick “the Matchbox” because so many houses and buildings were burning down—some purposely set on fire by their own landlords in hopes of collecting insurance money. Although Remember Us is fiction, Woodson notes in an afterword that the novel is inspired by her own childhood: “We knew people who had lost their homes to fire, and my family worried about our own house going up in flames.”
For 12-year-old narrator Sage, who dreams of becoming the first woman player in the NBA, seventh grade is “the year when, one by one, the buildings on Palmetto melted into a mass of rock and ash and crumbled plaster.” It’s also the year that she befriends Freddy, who shares her love of basketball.
Sage’s deep sense of nostalgia intertwines with a palpable fear of those fires, which act as a metaphor for Sage’s recognition that her body and her world are changing: The present is constantly turning into the “once was.” Sage and her mother live in the boyhood home of Sage’s late father, who belonged to the Vulcan Society (a fraternity of Black firemen) and died in a fire. Although Sage hardly remembers him, she cherishes using his basketball. “He, too, was a part of the once was,” she muses. “And soon I’d be part of the once was of Bushwick, of my block, of the park and the hundreds of basketball games I’d played there.”
Remember Us has the feel of a new classic, ageless in its universal themes while wonderfully rendering a specific time and place. The pure magic of this novel is that Woodson somehow makes readers feel as though they are experiencing these moments of growing up along with Sage. Woodson flawlessly intersperses explosive moments—and games of basketball—among quiet, reflective scenes while responding to Sage’s weighty fears with reassurance about the permeance of loving memories.