It shouldn’t take a political platform or televised law suits to address the issues plaguing the underclass community. Americans have entered 2016 barraged by stories of police brutality and fiscal breakdowns both on the state and metropolitan level. Meanwhile, the wealthy continue to throw parties and toss a few charitable coins and the poor continue to struggle on and further on… Fiction thankfully allows us into to diverse states of the human condition and Rachel Harper, author of “This Side of Providence” takes us there.
Providence, Rhode Island, an underclass community populated with the working poor, aid-dependent folks, drug dealers and addicts… Citizens get by on what they can and public aid pays the rest. Schools are underserved and parks are replaced by potholes filled with sand where children act out their stories amid traffic. This is the story of Arcelia Luna Perez and her struggle to ditch her drug habit and keep her children. Using a cast of rotating first person narrators, readers endure their struggle to stay connected to each other and their community.
What is most outstanding is Harper’s ability to demonstrate the goodness inherent within the characters in spite of dangerous and illegal choices they struggle with throughout the story. Harper’s novel is filled with drug abuse, dealers, theft, slum-lording, violence and abuse of public aid dollars. Providence dwellers have limited options and choosing toward social advancement is not widely abundant among them. For example, Cristo, Arcelia’s 5th grade son, has to steal food in order for them to eat and he delivers mysterious, illegal packages to earn money toward future rent. Other characters designed with this dichotomy include, Snowman, an albino African American landlord and drug-lord middleman ensures the safety and welfare of Arcelia and Cristo during her last days of life. There are more characters, many more, who when duty calls respond responsibly to its cry and others who quickly turn the other cheek to crime. Ironically, constant disappointment undoes no one as characters continue on with their business of living.
The narrative structure alternates from narrator to narrator demonstrating the many points of view on the family’s breakdown. At the onset of mid to end chapters are dreamlike flashbacks which piece together Arcelia’s tragic back story during which she fled from Puerto Rico and landed in Providence. Peppered throughout the novel too, are a series of letters some in English and one Spanish that offer readers insight to Arcelia’s self-discovery and that of significant characters as well.
On an unsuccessful note, and in light of how too many hard knocks in life cause us to age beyond our years, Harper may have given the character’s too much emotional insight, maturity, prevailing goodness. The wisdom of the younger characters seemed somewhat exaggerated and should’ve included the negative reactions to the stress of childhood poverty. “This Side of Providence” allows socially isolated readers to believe that good people can come from bad circumstances because they can and do. The only way to find out is to cross the other side of the tracks and see.