Last Summer on State Street by Toya Wolfe is an illuminating debut novel that casts a revealing light on the realities faced by those residing in America's housing projects. The novel delves into the lives of an unlikely trio of friends in the backdrop of the Robert Taylor Homes, a public housing project on Chicago's South Side. At the heart of this story are three central characters. Felicia 'Fe Fe' Stevens, the daughter of a fiercely protective mother, is one. Precious Brown, in turn, is the daughter of a prominent church elder. Stacia Buchanan, another key character, is the daughter of a female gang leader. Their simple friendship revolves around carefree games of Double Dutch and snow cones, but everything changes when the mysterious Tonya joins their circle.
Wolfe fearlessly plunges readers into the gritty underbelly of Chicago's housing projects in 1999, delivering an unflinching depiction of poverty, gangs, and violence. This realism might make some uncomfortable, but it is precisely this discomfort that underscores the book's mission—jolting us awake to the harsh realities faced by those living in such environments. Wolfe's narrative prowess is nothing short of remarkable, breathing life into the setting and offering an immersive and eye-opening reading experience. Her personal history, growing up in the Robert Taylor Homes, infuses the narrative with a level of authenticity that makes it vivid and imaginable. Through Wolfe's unapologetic storytelling, the housing projects of Chicago in 1999 cease to be a distant tale; instead, they become a stark and visceral reality that demands our attention and empathy.
Furthermore, the perspective of a child throughout the book adds a unique and impactful dimension, illustrating how growing up in challenging circumstances forces children to mature prematurely. Wolfe’s portrayal of Fe Fe and her experiences in such an environment is deeply moving. Despite the novel's tough subject matter, Fe Fe's voice retains a sense of lightness and hope, making even the most heart-wrenching moments bearable. Her faith, depicted with subtlety, adds depth to her character and her 'coming of age' story. For instance, Fe Fe’s unwavering trust in people, stemming from her childhood innocence, is evident in her refusal to believe the rumours surrounding her friend Tonya. This aspect of her faith adds depth and authenticity to her character's growth throughout the story.The writing, deceptively breezy and lyrical, beautifully contrasts with the harsh topics, and the characters' imperfections make them all the more relatable.
In closing, Toya Wolfe's debut novel is a powerful testament to her storytelling ability and her capacity to explore multi-layered characters with insight and empathy. Last Summer on State Street is a touching narrative that leaves readers eagerly anticipating her future literary endeavours.